Greg Burns, right, lobbyist with Thorn Run Partners, discusses two projects for which Monroe County is seeking federal funds, during a June 15 Board of County Commissioners meeting at the Murray Nelson Government Center in Key Largo. County Commissioner Jim Scholl is at left. JIM McCARTHY/Keys Weekly

Monroe County commissioners unanimously approved a list of federal legislative priorities, which include U.S. 1 revetments and shoreline stabilization and Card Sound Bridge replacement planning, during a June 15 meeting at the Murray Nelson Government Center in Key Largo. 

Keeping flood insurance premiums affordable, federal disaster-related funding and coral reef protection are among the other priorities the county hopes senators and representatives in Washington, D.C., will support.

An approved and signed 2022 federal budget included some $5.4 million the county requested to help fund a flood mitigation project for the Twin Lakes community in Key Largo. A flood-prone community, the project includes road elevation and new drainage, as well as stormwater collection. 

Greg Burns, federal lobbyist for Thorn Run Partners who represents Monroe County, said it was the first time in a decade that Congress considered such requests. U.S. Rep. Carlos Gimenez made the request on behalf of Monroe County.

“The congressman really did deliver for you,” said “We worked with your (county) team to identify Twin Lakes as something we felt was competitive for funding.”

Now, county officials are hoping Congress will be willing to grant more requests as it begins work on a 2023 budget. The county’s new appropriation requests to Congress include $1.8 million for planning, design and engineering for a Card Sound Bridge replacement project. It’s one of 26 bridges that Monroe County maintains, and one of two evacuation routes from the Florida Keys to the mainland. 

Constructed in 1969, Card Sound Bridge is scheduled for replacement to ensure the continued safety of the route. Monroe County is requesting funding for 80% of the estimated cost for the planning, design and engineering phase of the project. The remaining 20% of the estimated cost will be funded locally.

County officials are also hoping to secure $1,040,000 in federal funds for planning, engineering and design for U.S. 1 revetments and shoreline stabilization portion of the Monroe County Coastal Storm Risk Management Project. For the past few years, the county has partnered with the Army Corps of Engineers on a feasibility study, using previously approved hurricane supplemental funding from Congress, to propose storm damage mitigation strategies. 

The planning, engineering and design phase cost is shared, 65% from federal funds and 35% non-federal money. The county is working with the Florida Department of Transportation, the owner of U.S. 1, to assist with the non-federal costs. 

“We’re excited to put these forward,” Burns said, adding that Gimenez made the two requests on behalf of the county. “We don’t know if either are funded yet. Congress is just beginning the work.”

In addition to supporting a federal legislative agenda, the board of county commissioners approved an agreement totalling $80,000 with Thorn Run Partners for federal lobbying services on behalf of Monroe County. The terms of the agreement end May 31, 2023.

Other county priorities include making changes to the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) by limiting annual rate increases to no more than 9% per year for policyholders. Right now, those rates could increase 18% per year, Burns said. Congress will need to reauthorize the program, which expires Sept. 30.

“Many people see NFIP as being completely broken,” Burns said, adding that President Biden’s administration recently released a proposal that would change the program. “This is not a partisan issue.  It tends to be dependent upon how significant flooding can be in your community.”

Coral restoration is another federal legislative priority for Monroe County. Burns said the federal government has invested around $30 million annually over the past 20 years, but the health of coral is still declining. Burns said he’s working to help pass Sen. Marco Rubio’s Restoring Resilient Reefs Act, which would propose more investment for restoration and more funds for emergency coral restoration. 

“The status quo hasn’t worked over the past 20 yeras,” Burns said. “It just hasn’t worked. Congress has the opportunity to help and save what we have left. This is the best chance right now to get this bill passed.” 

Burns added that the entire Florida delegation supports this bill. 

In other matters, the BOCC received the final technical results of a roads study. A presentation showed a final estimate of $1.6 billion to adjust roughly 311 miles of road in unincorporated Monroe County that are vulnerable to sea level rise by 2045. 

“When looking at potential adaptations to the county’s road infrastructure, this process determined which roads are vulnerable by 2045, how high they need to be elevated, and when they need to be elevated,” said Monroe County Chief Resilience Officer Rhonda Haag. 

A variety of funding sources, such as grants and infrastructure sales tax initiatives, will be needed to pay for the projects. Monroe County officials say they are researching options for funding sources for these large-scale resilience projects, including the state’s “Resilient Florida” program.

The county is about to move forward with the construction of the pilot road elevation projects in the Twin Lakes subdivision in Key Largo and Sands subdivision in Big Pine Key using grant funding. Stillwright Point in Key Largo will begin its design phase under a state grant.

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Jim McCarthy is a northerner who escaped the snow and frigid temperatures for warm living by the water. A former crime & court reporter and city editor for two Western New York newspapers, Jim has been honing his craft since his graduation from St. Bonaventure University in 2014. In his 3 years in the Keys, Jim has enjoyed connecting with the community. “One of my college professors would always preach to be curious,” he said. “Behind every person is a story that’s unique to them, and one worth telling. Behind every community is resiliency and resolve in difficult times. As writers, we are the ones who paint the pictures in the readers minds of the emotions, the struggles and the triumphs.” Jim serves as President of the Key Largo Sunset Rotary Club, which is composed of energetic members who serve the community’s youth and older populations. “It’s a group that lives by the motto ‘Service Above Self,’” he says. “We’ve done service projects at the Tavernier nursing home, sitting down and socializing with residents. “We’ve also supplied cameras to young students exploring the Keys ecosystem.” Jim loves sports, family and time exploring underneath the water depths.