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The Sunshine Skyway is a cable-stayed bridge that spans the mouth of Tampa Bay, from the tip of Pinellas County, Florida to near Bradenton, FL in Manatee County, Florida. It was the site of one of the worst bridge disasters in history.

Though it never touches land in Hillsborough County, Florida, and is quite far from any point in that county, much of the bridge is technically in the county. Hillsborough controls the middle part of the mouth of the bay because it leads to their coast – none of the county is on the Gulf of Mexico. All ships docking at the port of Tampa, the busiest and biggest port on Florida’s west coast, must cross under the bridge on the way to Tampa.

The first bridge opened in 1954. It was 15 miles long and had a clearance of 150 feet. Two lanes of traffic wasn’t enough, so a second parallel bridge was opened in 1971, adding two more lanes. Over the next decade, four ships bumped into the bridge. As if that wasn’t enough of a bad omen, the freighter Capricorn collided with a Coast Guard cutter, the USS Blackthorn, killing 23 of the cutter’s crew.

On May 9, 1980, at 7:38 in the morning, the empty phosphate freighter Summit Venture (registry: Liberia), captained by one John Perro, was fighting its way through a nasty storm when it slammed in one of the piers of the west bridge, the southbound one. 1261 feet of bridge was knocked into the water, and 35 people fell to their deaths in Tampa Bay, including all the occupants of a Greyhound Bus bound for Miami. One lucky man survived the plunge because he never actually made it into the water – his truck crashed onto the deck of the freighter.

Commuters had to make do with the two lanes on the east bridge until the new Sunshine Skyway was opened in 1987, at a cost of $245 million. This one has a higher clearance of 193 feet, and it feels like you’re going straight up when you drive it. It’s also supposed to withstand ship impacts better than the old bridge, but no one has tested that claim yet, thankfully. The old bridge was demolished in 1990 and bits of it near land were converted into fishing piers.

Recently, it was discovered that the bridge wasn’t exactly made to last, as they have found corrosion in some of the steel in the columns, a problem which has occurred in bridges of similar design around the world. Also, the bridge tends to be a popular spot for suicides.

Cool pictures can be found at http://www.geocities.com/pagesbydave/SunSkyDemoHis.html

For the record, the Sunshine Skyway is a part of the route of U.S. 19; while the bridge was in its temporary two-lane configuration in the 1980s, Interstate 275 was finally extended to both ends of the bridge, but it wasn't until the new bridge opened that the I-275 route officially joined U.S. 19 on the bridge.

Many of the deaths from the collapse were not the result of vehicles being on the part of the bridge that fell; rather, drivers drove off into empty space in the low visibility conditions. The new bridge has wires attached to the sides of the deck that, if broken, will activate "STOP HERE ON RED" signals located at standard intervals all the way across. There are also plenty of security cameras being monitored remotely as a backup.

The Sunshine Skyway is a toll bridge, with the toll plaza spanning the entire roadway located just south of the bridge. The toll is a mere $1 each way for passenger cars.

A rest area located south of the toll plaza serves traffic in both directions, which allows for reversing course. Therefore, it's easy to make a fairly short scenic drive over the Skyway and back when coming from Tampa or St. Petersburg. It's a fun activity for guests from out of town, and it's even more fun to tell them what happened to the old bridge while sitting in the parking lot at the rest area after already having made the drive in one direction. Well worth the $2 total.

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