Sunshine Skyway Bridge: Construction, History & Facts

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Sunshine Skyway Bridge of Florida is the longest of its kind. In this lesson, we'll find out what kind of bridge it is and check out the other aspects of its design that make it so fascinating.

The Sunshine Skyway Bridge

When people come to the coast of west Florida, they come for the sun and the seascapes. They don't always come with the intention of marveling at the architecture, but what if you could see sun, sea, and building all rolled together? Well, you can.

The Sunshine Skyway Bridge (which is a very optimistic name for a bridge) stretches 29,040 feet from St. Petersburg to Bradenton, Florida. That's over four miles, most of it across the mouth of Tampa Bay. It's an amazing sight, a shining compliment to the sunshine and seascapes of west Florida.

The Sunshine Skyway Bridge
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History

The history of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge begins with its predecessor, a steel cantilever bridge of the same name. The old bridge guarded over Tampa Bay for almost 30 years until May 9, 1980, when a terrible thunderstorm smashed the freighter Summit Venture into the bridge. Over 1,000 feet of the bridge collapsed into the water, killing 35 people.

Construction and Design of the New Bridge

The 1980 disaster was a major tragedy, and the state realized that a new bridge was needed. Demolition crews were brought in to safely destroy what remained of the old bridge. The supports were later turned into fishing piers. A new bridge was designed primarily by Figg and Muller Engineers, with lower-level sections created by several other firms.

However, this new bridge would not look like the old one. In fact, it would be a different kind of bridge entirely. The original bridge was a cantilever bridge, in which steel trusses supported the weight of the load-bearing deck. The new Sunshine Skyway Bridge, on the other hand, would be a cable-stayed bridge.

The old cantilever bridge that was destroyed in 1980.
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A cable-stayed bridge is one in which cables extend directly from towers or pylons along the bridge and connect to/support the load-bearing deck. This makes them different from other cable-based bridges (like suspension bridges, in which the deck is suspended from cables attached between multiple towers).

Construction of the new Sunshine Skyway Bridge began in 1982. Over 300 precast concrete segments were transported to the site and quickly linked together with the cables anchored to massive towers. Twenty-one steel cables extend from each direction of the towers, supporting the weight of the concrete slabs. Each cable is encased in nine-inch-diameter steel pipes. In fact, the entire bridge is almost completely composed of just concrete and steel, making it the longest cable-stayed concrete bridge in the world.

At a cost of $244 million, the bridge opened in 1987, making it a very rapid construction project considering the size of the structure. Since then, the bridge has been lauded for its design, which includes some very unique elements, most focused on the central span of the bridge. The cables descending from the two towers of this span are set in the middle of the bridge, with 40-foot roadways on each side. By placing the cables here, instead of on the edges of the bridge, the designers ensured that motorists would always have an unimpeded view of the bay. As a final touch, the cable cases were all painted bright yellow, representing rays of sunshine in the Sunshine State.

The yellow cables are among the most distinctive elements of the bridge.
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Safety First

The design of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge is well worthy of praise, but that pales in comparison to the efforts taken to make this bridge as safe as possible. Considering what happened to the old bridge, the obsession with safety is understandable. The designers started by raising the bridge 50% higher, building it 190 feet above the water so that ships could safely pass underneath.

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