State officials have closed four pedestrian bridges in the Florida Keys because of safety concerns.
On Friday, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) in conjunction with Monroe County closed the Ohio-Missouri, Ohio-Bahia Honda, Missouri-Little Duck and Lower Sugarloaf bridges, which make up a portion of the Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail, DEP officials said.
The bridges, which are more than 100 years old, were once a part of Henry Flagler's Florida East Coast Railway. They are no longer used for transportation purposes and do not handle vehicle traffic.
"We hate to close fishing bridges that are so popular with anglers," said Department Secretary Herschel T. Vinyard Jr. "The safety of our park and trail visitors, however, has to come first."
The next closest bridge area for the public to fish from is located north on U.S. 1 at Mile Marker 40 at the west end of the Seven Mile Bridge.
Sunshine Key R.V. park guests regularly use the Ohio-Missouri, Ohio-Bahia Honda and Missouri-Little Duck bridges, and KOA campers frequent the Lower Sugarloaf Bridge, according to county officials.
In December, Florida Department of Transportation conducted a structural survey of the bridges and found major deficiencies, DEP spokeswoman Mara Burger said. In its report to the DEP's Office of Greenways and Trails, FDOT recommended immediate closure of the four bridges.
DEP officials reviewed the report and agreed with the conclusion, Burger said.
Monroe County Commissioner George Neugent met with Vinyard this week in Tallahassee and reviewed the inspection report, which detailed "heavy corrosion" in the understructure of the bridge, and showed that some of the beams are rusting away, Neugent said.
The cost to repair the bridges is estimated to be about $15 million, money that DEP does not have budgeted for such projects, Neugent said.
"There is no immediate fix to deal with this," Neugent said. "We (county and state officials) are going to have to sit down and talk about this. The good thing is this does not affect vehicle traffic."
Neugent did remind visitors and residents that there are plenty of other bridges in the Keys to fish from.
DEP will place barriers on the bridges to keep people from accessing them, Neugent said.
The Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail runs the entire length of Flagler's old railroad. DEP has made a significant investment in the Overseas Heritage Trail, spending more than $13 million to repair and upgrade the trail in the past decade.
The Heritage Trail parallels the Overseas Highway, a designated National Scenic Highway and All-American Road. The recreational pathway incorporates 23 of the historic Flagler railroad bridges. The longest, continuous section of paved trail is between Mile Marker 106 in Key Largo and Mile Marker 72 in Islamorada.
The trail now encompasses more than 72 miles, which will extend to 106 miles when complete.