This past Wednesday those involved in the mission to restore the historic 7 Mile Bridge pushed the Marathon Government Center to maximum occupancy to see county commissioners approve a funding plan that would assure the survival of the iconic structure.
A majority of the audience included members of the non-profit organization, Friends of Old Seven, which was founded 27 months ago and considered the leading partner in the effort to save the bridge. Speakers included Marathon Mayor Dick Ramsay and Vice Mayor Chris Bull who offered Marathon’s support.
There was also a little old lady from Richmond,Virginia.
“I don’t live here, but I was walking on the bridge at 6:30 this morning,” said Barbara Gilbert, “and I just want to say thank you for having the bridge here.”
Other speakers traveled from Key West to support the initiative including Ed Swift, Bill Spottswood and Pritam Singh, who all spoke of the commissions’ responsibility to protect community assets.
“This is our great monument,” Singh said. “This is a world heritage treasure for the five of you to take care of.”
The bridge was built by Henry Flagler at the turn of the century and is the sole remaining portion of what was once dubbed the “Eighth Wonder of the World.”
“We are doing something here that is visionary – taking a leap of faith,” said Commissioner George Neugent to a round of applause. “When the state, the county and the city of Marathon come together, that is a pretty special thing.”
The most recent estimate to restore the 2.2 mile section of the bridge from mainland Marathon to the county-owned Pigeon Key is $77 million. After months of negotiations County Administrator Roman Gastesi recently announced a conceptual funding plan between the three entities that would result in the Florida Department of Transportation shouldering 75 percent ($58 million), the county funding 18 percent ($14 million) and Marathon agreeing to 7 percent ($5 million).
“It’s a shared initiative that covers initial repairs and annual maintenance for 30 years,” Gastesi explained. “The important thing is that DOT retains ownership.”
The initial plan calls for DOT to drop more than $32 million on initial repairs with the county chipping in $2.7 million. Over the next 30 years, the county will be responsible for a $207,000 annual maintenance bill in addition to setting aside another $5 million that will cover half of the 30 year paint job the county is splitting with Marathon.
The motion passed on a 4 to 1 vote with Commissioner Danny Kohlage dissenting, who said he has a “basic disagreement” with the county using money from the 1-cent capital infrastructure sales tax fund to subsidize bridge repairs.
“That’s my problem with it,” he said. “Right now we are waiting on a report on 400-plus miles of our county roads that haven’t had any work done on them in ten years.”
Commissioner Heather Carruthers voiced concern about using ad valorem tax dollars to fund the repairs, but concluded with, “I don’t think there is a more iconic image of the Florida Keys and I am an American history major so I am going to vote for it.”
The Monroe County Commission will meet again in March with a detailed funding plan as well as a business plan that will outline the stakeholders and their responsibilities in the project.