October 3, 2018

FDOT
A pedestrian bridge to Founders Park on Plantation Key got the go-ahead from the Islamorada Village Council last week.

FDOT A pedestrian bridge to Founders Park on Plantation Key got the go-ahead from the Islamorada Village Council last week.

ISLAMORADA — A permanent pedestrian bridge over U.S. 1 on Plantation Key may not be scenic, but it could save lives, the Islamorada Village Council decided Sept. 27.

Council members voted 4-1 to tell the Florida Department of Transportation to seek a contractor to build the bridge to Founders Park.

“This is the best option to protect this community,” said Councilman Jim Mooney, the board’s most ardent advocate for the elevated walkway. “This is about saving lives. I’m not going to apologize because it’s ugly. We can make it pretty.”

Vice Mayor Deb Gillis cast the dissenting vote.

“I’m not sold on this,” she said. “I think there may be other answers, and I’m not satisfied with the DOT plan.”

FDOT staff recently alerted Islamorada that if the village wants to proceed on the bridge, the agency needs to start soliciting proposals from contractors.

As designed, the pedestrian bridge would cost an estimated $2.5 million to $3 million, funded by the state. Islamorada council members previously agreed to cover costs for electricity and maintenance of two elevators in towers along highway.

Supporters of the bridge told council members last week that in addition to reducing traffic slowdowns caused by a handful of annual events on weekends, the span will allow area residents to reach Founders Park without risking their lives by walking across busy U.S. 1.

“I live right there and see people trying to cross 45-mph traffic with their dogs and paddleboards,” Kristine Friedman said. “It’s so dangerous I’ll drive across the street. … This [bridge] serves everyone, every day of the year.”

Kelly Mangel, principal of the nearby Treasure Village Montessori School, said the bridge would safeguard her students as they walk to the park once a week for physical education, and for several students who walk across U.S. 1 on a daily basis.

“If you build it, people are going to use it,” said Randy Althouse, who described hazards facing people who walk or bicycle to Founders Park. “I know two kids on bicycles who got nailed there. What’s it going to take?”

Larry Barry added, “It’s not the prettiest thing in the world, but it’s a lot safer. I think this is the answer you’ve been looking for.”

Critics of the permanent span said the few major events that cause traffic backups do not justify the costs. They contended the bridge detracts from Islamorada’s character.

“I could not have been more shocked by the massive size required to support this permanent bridge in front of our beautiful Founders Park,” Jill Miranda Baker said. “I cannot support this project to ease traffic flow for a handful of events each year.”

Tracy Hubbard, a 40-year resident of Plantation Key, said she knows of no fatalities near the park.

“It does seem like there will be a lot of concrete poured for that structure,” she said, “and maintenance as well.”

Former council member Dave Purdo opposed the bridge.

“If they want to spend the $2.5 million on affordable housing, I’m all for it,” he said.

Sally Bauer said she was surprised when the council changed plans for a removable span to a permanent one with elevators.

“We have no idea what maintenance will be, and that’s one more thing you’re asking us to pay for,” she said.

Mayor Chris Sante did not find council support for his suggestion to consider installing pedestrian islands in the median rather than building a bridge. He then voted with the board majority.

“As much as I don’t like the bridge or the cost, I will support moving ahead,” Sante said. “We can decorate the towers, or put ‘Islamorada’ on the crosswalk.”

“This has been a council project for five years,” Councilman Mike Forster said. “I apologize to those people against it, but it’s for the greater good. I’m all for it.”

“It’s a great thing for the park,” added Councilwoman Cheryl Meads. “People will love it and they’ll never know that people hesitated about it.”

In an FDOT timeline, the Founders Park pedestrian bridge at mile marker 87 would begin construction in late 2019, with a build time of about a year. The elevated 61-foot-long walkway goes above three lanes of U.S. 1 traffic, with a road-height clearance of 17 feet, 6 inches.

Two flanking towers would stand about 35 feet high, with stairs built to Americans with Disability Act standards. Barrier walls would be installed and the existing asphalt trail would be moved.

kwadlow@keysnews.com