We’re almost there. Seriously.

The long-awaited completion of the Old 7 Mile Bridge project is just around the corner. Since July 2016, when it closed for renovations, most Marathon residents (or Keys residents, for that matter) have been asking the same questions about Old Seven. Stop us if you’ve heard these before: “When will it be finished?” “What’s taking so long?” “What are they even doing?”

“At this point, I honestly should just get shirts made with all those answers,” said Kelly McKinnon, executive director of Pigeon Key. There may be no better source of information than the man whose island is quite literally attached to the project.

Originally scheduled as a four-year $41 million project, October 2022 would mark the end of the estimated project timeline from when bridge work actually commenced. The estimated completion eventually moved up to a March-through-May 2022 target date, and as it stands now, McKinnon said the new timeline should open the bridge “shortly after the new year.”

And while most may not realize the full scope of the project beyond the new paint job visible from the active 7 Mile Bridge, the work done to the old bridge was enormous.

In addition to three separate coats of paint for a rust barrier, primer and top coat, the construction crew used hydraulic jacks to lift the entire bridge, one 10-foot section at a time. “They thought they might be able to replace just some of the steel I-beams that are the support structure of the bridge,” explained McKinnon. However, upon further inspection, the original 1936 I-beams were understandably in rougher shape than expected. “Once they got under there, they quickly made the call that they were going to have to replace every single one.” 

New I-beams were manufactured on site and slid under each raised bridge section before the jacks lowered it back into place. For those counting at home, covering the two-mile span from the shoreline to Pigeon Key required repeating this entire process well over 1,000 times.

The work didn’t stop there. Among other smaller improvements, thousands of rusted metal plates were removed from below the bridge deck, with rivets so rusted and rotted that they had to be popped off and remanufactured. A new aluminum rail system was also installed inside the old railings to bring the bridge up to code and ensure pedestrian safety.

“The layperson with the naked eye has no idea about the monumental project these guys undertook,” said McKinnon. “The fact that they got it done when they got it done is unbelievable. They even wrapped the entire bridge in long sections and made certain that when they were working, nothing got into the natural environment.”

While McKinnon, like others, is chomping at the bit to welcome visitors back to Pigeon Key via the traditional bridge passage, he cautioned that unauthorized early visits to the bridge will only ruin finishing touches in progress and slow the opening down. “Despite the way it looks, there is no access currently,” he said. “Contractors are doing everything they can to block it off, and folks who are consciously going around barriers to get onto the bridge aren’t helping the project get done any sooner.”

Keys Weekly also reached out to FDOT for an update on the bridge, but has not received a response as of press time. 

The moral of the story is, just wait. It’ll be worth it.

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Alex Rickert made the perfectly natural career progression from dolphin trainer to newspaper editor in 2021 after freelancing for Keys Weekly while working full time at Dolphin Research Center. A resident of Marathon since 2015, he fell in love with the Florida Keys community by helping multiple organizations and friends rebuild in the wake of Hurricane Irma. An avid runner, actor, and spearfisherman, he spends as much of his time outside of work on or under the sea having civil disagreements with sharks.