03/11/12

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Sunshine Skyway

 

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Introduction

The beginning of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge:  The 1954 cantilever span

The 1971 cantilever span:  From blueprint to disaster

The 1987 cable-stayed span:  A much better improvement than its cantilever counterparts

Sunshine Skyway Bridge Pictures

 

Introduction

Opened to traffic in 1987, the Sunshine Skyway Bridge is a cable stayed bridge with a vertical clearance of 191 feet above the 1,200-foot wide shipping channel over Tampa Bay.  The sight is beautiful and majestic as you cross depending on the time of day.  The Sunshine Skyway Bridge is a popular tourist attraction as well as a favorite among St. Petersburg residents and visitors year in and year out.  The Sunshine Skyway Bridge carries not only Interstate 275, but it multiplexes with US 19 from Exit 17 (54 Av S) to Exit 5 (US 19 South). 

Toll to drive across the Sunshine Skyway Bridge is $1.00 for passenger cars, and can be paid with cash or SunPass (an electronic toll collection device that makes driving on toll roads and bridges in Florida more convenient).

The Sunshine Skyway Bridge has a colorful history from its heydays as a single two-lane cantilever span in 1954 to the present four-lane cable-stayed span.  In triumph and tragedy, the present cable-stayed and the former cantilever spans of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge are an icon of the Tampa Bay area.

The beginning of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge:  The 1954 cantilever span

I wrote a term paper about the Sunshine Skyway Bridge back when I was in high school during my senior year.  The need for a lower Tampa Bay crossing can be traced back to the 1920ís when a suspension bridge was proposed.  However, it met opposition from shipping interests in Tampa, who wanted a tunnel instead.  All ideas of a bridge or tunnel had to be put on the shelf when World War II broke out.

After World War II the idea of a bridge was resurfaced.  The need for a bridge was justified due to the traffic using the Bee Line Ferry as it was the only way to get to Bradenton and points south without having to make the long drive through Tampa.

The makeup of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge would be a system of bridges and dredged causeways crossing lower Tampa Bay.  Each structure would be identified by a letter, with Structure A being the drawbridge crossing the Intracoastal Waterway and Structures B, D and E being small fixed span bridges.  The main span would be Structure C, which would carry the majestic cantilever through truss section as it crosses the shipping channel in Tampa Bay.

Construction began on the original Sunshine Skyway Bridge in 1950 and it was completed in 1954 with a gala grand opening ceremony on Labor Day weekend of that year.  The original bridge was a cantilever through-truss with a vertical clearance of 150 feet and a shipping channel clearance of 864 feet, which was adequate for ships of that era.  One can admire the architecture of the major support piers on either side of the shipping channel as well as the three other support piers on the deck truss section of the bridge.  The only thing that gives anyone the jitters is the steel grid deck as one crosses the shipping channel and the humming sound it makes as one drives across.

For those that don't know the experience of driving across a steel grid deck bridge, it's basically the same as if you were driving across a drawbridge, only it's longer.  Speaking of drawbridges, the first bridge as you leave St. Petersburg going south was a drawbridge.

Within a few months of the Sunshine Skyway's opening of the original 1954 span it became popular with residents and visitors alike.  Gone were the days of having to make the roundabout drive through Tampa or having to take the Bee Line Ferry in order to reach Bradenton, Sarasota and points beyond.

The 1971 cantilever span:  From blueprint to disaster

Within a few years traffic increased so much that it justified a second span to accommodate southbound traffic.  Plans were prepared for construction of a second cantilever span utilizing the same plans as the Sunshine Skyway's 1954 counterpart.

Construction on the southbound span began in 1967 but it was not finished until 1971 due to settling of a major pier requiring major repair.  It was believed that the pilings driven into the bay bottom to support the pier were of concrete as opposed to steel and were not driven deep enough to the limestone below.  Repairs to the south channel pier were accomplished by driving steel pilings to the limestone and bracing the support pier to make the bridge safe for travel.

Except for the major south channel pier, all the other piers were designed and built identical to their 1954 counterparts.  I have drawn a comparison of the major support piers so that you can notice the difference.

The 1971 span when opened carried southbound traffic and it meant the difference; the 1954 span was converted to accommodate northbound traffic.  The 1971 southbound span of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge served its purpose for nine years until a stormy May morning in 1980 which will be forever etched in Tampa Bay area history.

On 9 May 1980 at 7:38 AM the Summit Venture, under the command of harbor pilot John Lerro, struck the southbound span of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in a blinding rainstorm, toppling much of the southbound span into Tampa Bay and costing 35 lives including several aboard a Greyhound bus destined for Miami.  There were two survivors, Wesley McIntire who went off the damaged end and swam to safety (the crew of the Summit Venture threw a lifeline and pulled Wesley McIntire aboard)  and Richard Hornbuckle who stopped his Buick Skylark a mere 14 inches from plummeting into the churning waters of Tampa Bay 150 feet below.

After the Skyway disaster there was a choice that had to be made:  Repair or replace?  One side wanted the bridge repaired while the other side wanted a whole new bridge.  After all, two way traffic was once again being maintained on the 1954 span.  A decision was made to replace the Sunshine Skyway Bridge with a cable-stayed bridge modeled after a bridge in France.

The 1987 cable-stayed span:  A much better improvement than its cantilever counterparts

As Interstate 275 was being built through St. Petersburg, the need for a Sunshine Skyway Bridge that is up to interstate standards was more obvious.  Shortly after the 1980 Sunshine Skyway disaster there was talk briefly of not including Interstate 275 with the Sunshine Skyway, but the need was greatly justified, especially with the construction of the replacement cable-stayed bridge.  Both the 1954 and 1971 cantilever spans did not meet interstate standards.

Work begun on replacing the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in 1984 and it was completed with a lot of fanfare with a dedication ceremony in February 1987 and the grand opening in April 1987.  Two years later in 1989 the roads leading up to the Sunshine Skyway were brought up to interstate standards, including the construction of overpasses at the north and south rest areas to better facilitate access.  In 1994 the drawbridges were replaced by high level fixed span bridges similar to the Howard Frankland Bridge thereby correcting a potential traffic bottleneck when the drawbridges were up.

The old Sunshine Skyway Bridge was demolished in 1991 and the resulting ends were converted into fishing piers.  Today all that remains of the 1954 and 1971 bridges are that of the fishing piers that were created.  Once the new span was opened the 1954 and 1971 spans including their main channel support piers were a navigation hazard necessitating their demolition.

In November 2005 the Sunshine Skyway was renamed the Bob Graham Sunshine Skyway Bridge in honor of the former Florida governor who I believe made the right decision to replace the 1954 and 1971 cantilever spans with a new cable stayed bridge, modeled after a similar bridge in France.  After the old southbound (1971) span of the Sunshine Skyway collapsed on 9 May 1980 Pinellas and Manatee interests wanted the old cantilever bridge rebuilt as soon as possible while Hillsborough interests wanted a tunnel; the decision to replace the old bridges with the new cable stayed bridge pleased both interests.

Sunshine Skyway Bridge Pictures

The Sunshine Skyway as it looks today

Sunshine Skyway Bridge southbound

 
Toll plaza one mile ahead

This is on the approach to the first span of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. Formerly a drawbridge, it was reconstructed as a high level fixed span bridge in 1994 and named the Dick Misener Bridge, after a well respected marine contractor in the Tampa Bay area

1/2 mile to the toll plaza

Taken as we exit the first span of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. The speed limit drops to 55 mph as you exit the first span coming southbound; the 65 mph speed limit will resume after the toll plaza.

The Sunshine Skyway toll plaza

This is where everyone pays their toll to cross the Sunshine Skyway. Toll for passenger cars is $1.00, payable by cash or SunPass. Notice that the SunPass lane is in the left lane. Back in the Sunshine Skyway's early heydays, the toll plaza for southbound travelers used to be before the first span; now with Interstate 275 an integral part of the Sunshine Skyway the toll plaza's current location is justified.

North Skyway Fishing Pier and Rest Area

Advance signage stating that the fishing pier and rest area is coming up in one mile. This is located just after the toll plaza.

The second span, known as Structure B

You will notice that you are riding on the original 1971 southbound span. In 1989 the southbound span of Structure B was retrofitted and new bridge rails constructed to bring the bridge to interstate standards.

Final opportunity for the fishing pier and rest area

As you will see, this is the last exit before the Sunshine Skyway's main span. A separate admission fee is charged for the fishing pier as it is a Florida state park. The rest area features a nighttime security guard on duty for peace of mind.

Crossing the north rest area cross road

This is one of the overcrossings built in 1989 when the Sunshine Skyway was brought up to interstate standards.

High winds when flashing

Signage before entering the Sunshine Skyway main span warning motorists to use caution if the yellow flashers are activated due to high winds on the center of the span. If the winds exceed 40 mph the Florida Highway Patrol closes the bridge.

The Bob Graham Sunshine Skyway Bridge

Situated at the entrance to the main span (known as Structure C), the main span of the Sunshine Skyway is named for the former Florida Governor and United States Senator who made the current cable-stayed version of the Sunshine Skyway a reality.

The Hillsborough County border

As soon as we enter the Sunshine Skyway's main span, we cross into Hillsborough County (didn't we leave Hillsborough County at the Howard Frankland Bridge?). Strange but true, the Sunshine Skyway main span is under the jurisdiction of three counties: Pinellas on the north, Hillsborough on the main span and Manatee on the south.

A quarter of the way on the main span

You can see the high rise signature cable stayed section just around the corner.

Entrance to the high rise section

We now transition from the low level trestle section to the start of the high rise section of the Sunshine Skyway which will take you 191 feet over Tampa Bay at the top. Just a reminder: the right shoulder is for emergency stopping only as this is part of Interstate 275.

Midway ascending the high rise section

Notice that the uphill grade of 4% is not that bad on vehicles unlike the old Sunshine Skyway's steep 5% grade.

Almost at the top of the Sunshine Skyway

Here you can see the signature cable stays that make the Sunshine Skyway an important icon of the Tampa Bay area.

At the top of the Sunshine Skyway!

At this point we are 191 feet over Tampa Bay. This clearance is necessary due to the many ships that transit the Port of Tampa on a daily basis. The view is breathtaking from here, but don't stop on the emergency shoulder - there are surveillance cameras watching you and if you stop on the shoulder for any reason, expect a visit from the Florida Highway Patrol within minutes.

Downhill from the center span

You can see Bradenton in the distance on a good day.

Midway down the hill

Notice the old style mile marker 10 to the right; that indicates it's only 10 more miles to the end of Interstate 275 at Interstate 75 in Ellenton.

Back on the trestle section once more

Now that we crossed the high section of the Sunshine Skyway, we're back on the low level trestle section.

Manatee County border

We cross yet another county border one more time, and that is into Manatee County. We'll finally leave Hillsborough County behind here.

Almost onto land

To the right is a new style mile marker; it's only 8.5 miles to the end of Interstate 275 from here.

Land ho!

We have made it onto Terra Manatee as we exit the main span of the Sunshine Skyway. The south Skyway fishing pier and rest area is one mile away.

Back on dry land again

The road to the right is the access road to the fishing pier. But we got one more small bridge to cross yet!

Structure D of the Sunshine Skyway

Like Structure B from earlier, the southbound Structure D bridge is the original 1971 southbound span which was retrofitted in 1989 to interstate standards.

Final opportunity for the rest area and fishing pier

If you missed the rest area on the north end, you get a second chance here. If you want to make a U turn without paying additional toll you can do so by exiting here and following the signs to Interstate 275 north. The next exit after this interchange will be Exit 5, US 19 south to Palmetto and Bradenton.

Sunshine Skyway Bridge northbound

 
Interstate 275 and US 19

The Sunshine Skyway carries not only Interstate 275, it also carries US 19 as well. When the original Sunshine Skyway opened in 1954, US 19 was extended to the junction of US 41 in Palmetto. In 1989 when the Sunshine Skyway was upgraded to interstate standards it received the Interstate 275 designation completing the 59-mile highway.

High winds when flashing

Taken as we get ready to enter the main span of the Sunshine Skyway. The flashers on top of the sign activate when the winds get up to 40 mph or greater. If it gets too dangerous, the Florida Highway Patrol can close the bridge as a safety precaution.

The Bob Graham Sunshine Skyway Bridge

As mentioned in the southbound section, the main span of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge is named for the former Florida Governor and United States Senator who made the decision to replace the twin spans of the old Sunshine Skyway with a new cable stayed bridge, modeled after one in France.

Hillsborough County border

We leave Manatee County behind and cross into Hillsborough County. But our stay in Hillsborough County will only be for a short time while we cross the high rise main span ahead.

The beginning of the high rise span

Here we transition from the low level trestle to ascend the 4% grade which will carry us 191 feet over Tampa Bay.

Midway towards the top

I agree, the 4% grade is better on your car than the steep 5% grade on the old Sunshine Skyway.

Almost at the top

The Sunshine Skyway's cables show their full yellow glory.

Welcome to the top of the Sunshine Skyway

We are now 191 feet above Tampa Bay, adequate for the modern ships transiting in and out of the Port of Tampa.

Motorist aid and crisis counseling call box

There are six of these call boxes stationed on top of the Sunshine Skyway, three for northbound (including the one pictured) and three for southbound. The call boxes have a dual purpose: Motorist aid and crisis intervention. Having crisis intervention call boxes on major bridges like the Sunshine Skyway isn't new; a similar setup is in place on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

Beginning our descent

Here you can see the beaches and Downtown St. Petersburg in the distance.

Midway down the hill

To the right is an old style mile marker, 11 miles from the southern end of Interstate 275 in Ellenton.

Down from the hill

We're back on the low level trestle portion of the Sunshine Skyway main span. To the right is a new-style mile marker, 11.5 miles from the southern terminus of Interstate 275 in Ellenton; the mile markers increase as you go north.

Pinellas County border

Our stay in Hillsborough County was short-lived; we now cross into Pinellas County as we get ready to step onto dry land once more. We won't enter Hillsborough County again until we cross the Howard Frankland Bridge, about 23 miles later.

Land Ho! (Pinellas County soil)

We have just exited the main span of the Sunshine Skyway and we are now on terra Pinellas and (soon) St. Petersburg. Here is the first exit since the main span, the north Skyway fishing pier and rest area.

Interstate 275's designation in St. Petersburg

Interstate 275 in St. Petersburg is also known as the St. Petersburg Parkway and William C. Cramer Memorial Highway, named after the United States Congressman who was instrumental in getting Interstate 275 pushed through St. Petersburg

Entering Structure B

This is a small bridge connecting the two dredged causeway islands that make up the Sunshine Skyway. Unlike its southbound counterpart built in 1971 and retrofitted to interstate standards, the northbound bridge was completely reconstructed in 1989 as the original bridge was built in 1954 and not only meeting interstate standards, the 1954 bridge could not handle the heavy traffic loads.

St. Petersburg City Limits

We officially cross into the City of St. Petersburg just north of the Structure B bridge.

Mileage for Pinellas Park, Tampa International Airport and Tampa

We get our first taste of the distance to Tampa since Interstate 75 in Ellenton, which is 30 miles away. Pinellas Park is 16 miles ahead via Gandy Blvd (Exit 28) and Tampa International Airport (Exit 39B) is 26 miles ahead as well. This is seen from within the confines of the scenic view area.

Our first exit since US 41

Right after we cross the Dick Misener Bridge (which is Structure A of the Sunshine Skyway) will be the first exit of Interstate 275 in St. Petersburg, Exit 16/Pinellas Point Drive via Skyway Lane.

Ascending the Dick Misener Bridge

Also known as Structure A of the Sunshine Skyway, the Dick Misener Bridge is named after a well respected marine contractor whose mark of excellence is shown on the many bridges constructed in the Tampa Bay area. This bridge is a high level bridge built in 1994 that replaced the original drawbridges which were functionally obsolete and did not meet interstate standards.

On top of the Dick Misener Bridge

The top of the bridge is about 90 feet high, same as the 1991 Howard Frankland Bridge. From here you can see the skyline of St. Petersburg.

Descending from the bridge

Once we are on dry land this will end the Sunshine Skyway Bridge but Interstate 275 continues on its trek through St. Petersburg and Tampa. Notice to the right is a pedestrian walkway which is part of a pedestrian trail from Pinellas Point Drive South to the north Skyway rest area.

Final opportunity for Exit 16

Here is the first exit on Interstate 275 since US 41, Pinellas Point Drive South reached via Skyway Lane.

Perspective of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge

 
Mile marker 7.5

This is one of the new style mile markers on southbound Interstate 275 as seen from the south Skyway fishing pier access road.

No parking on Interstate 275, period

If you want to do any recreational activity, don't park anywhere on Interstate 275 including the shoulder - instead, use the south Skyway fishing pier area. Notice that the international symbol for No Parking, the letter P in a red circle with a slash through it, is used. It reminds me of a similar sign in Mexico, only the letter E (for Estacionmiento) is used.

Speed Limit 65 mph

This speed limit is de rigeur on Interstate 275 not only on the Sunshine Skyway but through St. Petersburg as well.

View of Structure D

Here you will see how Structure D was retrofitted in order to bring the 1971 bridge up to interstate standards. This is seen from the south Skyway fishing pier access road.

Another view of Structure D

Notice the 1989 inscribed on the bridge as the year the bridge was retrofitted. The northbound counterpart of Structure D was completely reconstructed, as was Structure B further north. The original bridge rails were 1954 era.

A view of the Sunshine Skyway main span

This is seen from the south Skyway rest area using a telephoto lens feature on my digital camera.

Interstate 275 and US 19

Both routes remain together for the length of the Sunshine Skyway. This is also seen from the south Skyway fishing pier access road.

Closeup of the overhead for the south Skyway fishing pier and rest area

Again, this is seen from the south Skyway fishing pier access road.

The south Skyway rest area

The south Skyway rest area features restrooms, vending facilities and opportunities for picnicking. It is also patrolled at night by not only a security patrol but also Florida Highway Patrol presence for peace of mind.

Picture perfect view of the Sunshine Skyway

An important icon of the Tampa Bay area, this is seen from the south Skyway rest area.

Overcrossing for the north Skyway fishing pier and rest area

This overcrossing carrying Interstate 275 over the access road for the north Skyway fishing pier and rest area was built in 1989 when the Sunshine Skyway was brought up to interstate standards.

The north Skyway rest area

Like the south Skyway rest area, the north Skyway rest area features restrooms, vending facilities and opportunities for picnicking as well. It is also patrolled at night by not only a security patrol but also Florida Highway Patrol presence for peace of mind. It is also home to a monument commemorating the US Coast Guard Cutter Blackthorn disaster on 28 January 1980.

Closeup for the mileage sign for Pinellas Park, Tampa International Airport and Tampa

This is seen from the confines of the scenic overlook on northbound Interstate 275.

The scenic overlook

Located on northbound Interstate 275 just after you cross Structure B, it offers a splendid view of Tampa Bay as well as the main span of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. The pedestrian trail to the right of the photo parallels the scenic overlook.

Sunshine Skyway Dedication Photos

At the Sunshine Skyway's dedication ceremony in February 1987 (the bridge didn't open until April 1987) I took a few pictures with my trusty 35 mm camera; after all, digital cameras were not being made yet!

 
The inscription on the beginning of the concrete guardrail

The 150189 number is a Florida DOT bridge inventory number, which helps identify all bridges throughout the state.

Out there on a cold, yet overcast day

Notice the pedestrians checking out the new Sunshine Skyway Bridge for the first time during open house in February 1987.

Looking up on one of the towers holding the cables

The painting isn't complete yet, but it did just before its grand opening in April 1987. Inside the tower is a maintenance elevator that takes workers to the top as there is an aviation strobe beacon on top.

A view of the old Sunshine Skyway Bridge

Here you see the 1954 northbound span and the 1971 southbound span which was damaged in the 9 May 1980 accident. Both spans would not be demolished until 1991.

Another view of the old Sunshine Skyway Bridge

Notice the gigantic main channel piers that used to be an icon of the old Sunshine Skyway for years.

The old and the new

The old Sunshine Skyway is seen to the right, while the new Sunshine Skyway is to the left. This was taken at the beginning of the new bridge.

The road leading to the new Sunshine Skyway Bridge

Awaiting its stripes, the road definitely meets interstate standards and is a much better improvement over the old bridge.

A view of the dedication ceremony stand

This was taken before the dedication ceremony took place.

All the dignitaries standing at attention for the National Anthem

Notice the media outlets covering the event, including WTOG-TV Channel 44 Eyewitness News (which had a newscast at the time). Too bad Bay News 9 wasn't around yet (at least another 10 years, that is).

The dedication ceremony parade

This is on what used to be southbound US 19 which would be converted into southbound Interstate 275 two years later in 1989. The American, Canadian and Mexican flags are proudly presented here.

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This site was last updated 12/31/11