Why Some People Are Downright Terrified Of This Iconic Florida Bridge

Florida's Sunshine Skyway Bridge may sound like a walk in the clouds, but one look out your car window will dispel any notions of that. For one thing, there's nowhere to walk. The bridge eschews pedestrian or bike lanes in favor of four wide-open traffic lanes running across Tampa Bay. From a distance, its steep curvature and yellow, sunray-like cables (topping out at 430 feet) almost resemble the finned back of a sea monster rising out of the bay.

Eleven-foot safety fences, emergency crisis counseling phones, and the Florida Highway Patrol's round-the-clock monitoring have helped reduce the number of suicides on the Skyway. However, on the long approach before the bridge's fenced-in middle span, only a narrow shoulder and low side barrier separate motorists from a 50-foot drop to the waters below. This, coupled with the catastrophic collapse of the bridge's predecessor, the original Skyway, makes driving across it a dicey prospect for some people.

You might cross the Sunshine Skyway Bridge on your way from St. Petersburg to Sarasota, or vice versa. It's a 30-mile ride down I-275 from Samantha Brown's favorite airport, Tampa International. On Tripadvisor, the bridge currently ranks right up there with Busch Gardens as one of the top five things to see near Tampa. It and the first Skyway have even been likened to a ride like the ones at that theme park. When you're on the sharp incline toward its 190-foot center, though, it might feel like you're ascending the scariest of roller coasters.

A tale of two bridges: Tampa Bay and Baltimore

The Florida Department of Transportation has called the current Skyway the state's "flagship bridge." It's a toll bridge that opened in 1987, but the history of the Skyway — which gives it an association with disaster — goes back decades further. According to the Tampa Bay Times, the original Skyway opened back in 1954 to great local fanfare, including a naming contest, a water ballet, and a thick souvenir edition of the newspaper's forebear, the St. Petersburg Times. At that time, the Skyway was America's longest unbroken bridge.

In 1980, tragedy struck when a storm caused a freighter to collide with the Skyway. The bridge's ensuing collapse left one car dangling over the side and others, including a Greyhound bus, plunging into the bay. Thirty-five people lost their lives, and the incident left visible scars with two fishing piers formed out of the old bridge's remains.

For some, the cargo ship collision leading to the collapse of Baltimore's Francis Scott Key Bridge in March 2024 revived memories of the first Skyway's fate. Named after the national anthem's lyricist, the Francis Scott Key Bridge opened in 1977, just three years before the Skyway fell. As the Associated Press reported, Baltimore's bridge was within a football field's length from the historic site where Key observed the bombardment of Fort McHenry. This inspired him to write "The Star-Spangled Banner," giving the broken bridge with his name a symbolic weight, much like that of Florida's flagship Skyway.

How to see the Sunshine Skyway Bridge

Over the years, tall tales of a ghost bus and vanishing midnight hitchhiker have attached themselves to the Skyway. Yet, for those grounded in real-world fears, what haunts the bridge more may be the memory of a true-life disaster with some frightening parallels to the one in Baltimore. Still, in a nationwide survey conducted by Gunther Volkswagen in 2024, as reported by The Bradenton Times, the rebuilt Skyway ranked as the second-best bridge for a scenic commute in the continental U.S. Despite its troubled history, thousands of Floridians commute across it every day, and you may be able to enjoy a perfectly pleasant drive across it.

Not everyone is enamored of the bridge, though, with a few negative Tripadvisor reviews labeling it "dangerous" and a "death trap." Some suggest it's vertigo-inducing; others say they'd rather ride a ferry across Tampa Bay. Before the Skyway was constructed, the old Bee Line Ferry was the only way for cars to cross the bay.

Since the bridge isn't open to cyclists or pedestrians, your best bet for seeing it without a car now might be a sunset boat tour like the ones offered by St. Pete Coastal Cruises. The tours include dolphin watching and shell hunting on the shores of Outback Key. At night, the boat will cruise toward the Skyway so you can enjoy its multimillion-dollar light show. A good spot on land for photographing the bridge is East Beach, at the tip of Fort De Soto Park in Tierra Verde.