An elevated walkway over U.S. 1 neared construction next to Islamorada’s Founders Park. Between a village dais united in opposition to the project and public outcry, however, the $4.68-million state project to construct the Keys’ first pedestrian bridge on the Overseas Highway recently came to an immediate end.

A letter issued by the Florida Department of Transportation District 6 Secretary James Wolfe on Feb. 5 informed Mayor Buddy Pinder of the department’s decision to cancel the Founders Park Pedestrian Bridge. Action by FDOT to end the project swiftly — just weeks before installing foundations — came following a letter from Pinder on behalf of the village council on Jan. 20 that urged the Florida governor to instruct FDOT to cease any further construction

Just a day before FDOT’s letter was received, the village council unanimously supported a second letter seeking clarity on the Florida Department of Transportation’s decision to proceed on the project despite a 2016 FDOT feasibility study that said otherwise. That letter was in the draft stages when Wolfe’s letter arrived regarding the decision. 

Wolfe’s letter stated the change of position is “unfortunately timed” and “causing a loss of public funds.” According to state transportation officials, a total of $1,616,848 was spent by the department on the project. 

And just over $460,000 was spent by Florida Keys Electric Cooperative to relocate utilities for the pedestrian bridge. According to FKEC, the work started last fall and recently was finished. Shareholders from Ocean Reef to Marathon paid for the expense. 

“As this is a local project and should not proceed without village support, we will cancel the project and return the site to its prior condition,” Wolfe wrote. “FDOT worked closely with the village of Islamorada in the development of this project during which the village consistently  supported the pedestrian bridge.”

Following news of FDOT’s decision, Pinder told the Weekly the bridge’s cancellation was the result of residents who emailed the governor’s office, Wolfe and FDOT Secretary Kevin Thibault as well as the village council’s unified position on the project. Pinder voiced his opposition to the bridge during his campaign run. 

“It was awesome news,” he said. 

Discussions regarding traffic safety and the idea of safe crossing of U.S. 1 occurred roughly six years ago among local mayors and officials throughout Monroe County. What originated as the potential for a mobile pedestrian crosswalk for use from Key Largo to Key West turned into the idea for a pilot program for a permanent bridge. Surveying several locations, FDOT targeted Founders as the spot for a permanent bridge. 

FDOT maintained that the project would improve safety by providing a pedestrian connection over U.S. 1. And installation of a bridge wasn’t the only work FDOT was set to perform. The project also included the realigning of the path along the Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail, widening of shoulders, concrete barrier construction, installation of a sidewalk along Old Highway from the bridge to TVM and repaving. 

Three official actions were taken on the pedestrian bridge by the past village council, with the first taking place during a public meeting on Feb. 1, 2018, when a resolution was unanimously passed accepting FDOT’s recommendation for a steel truss pedestrian bridge with stairs and elevators. Council also agreed to maintain the elevator with a forthcoming agreement for approval. 

During a village meeting on Dec. 13, 2018, council approved a resolution for the bridge’s design. The tab item was originally found within the consent agenda, but it was pulled by Mike Forster, then vice mayor, for transparency and public comment. The resolution was then approved.

During a meeting on June 27, 2019, a resolution for a maintenance agreement between FDOT and the village was approved. That expense was estimated at around $3,500 a year.

Fast forward to November 2021, and five new council members took their seats following election victories. They sought information and answers to questions about the project. That effort was led by Councilman Henry Rosenthal, who raised the topic during the council’s first meeting on Nov. 19, when he suggested a referendum

Council left the meeting wanting the opportunity to review information regarding the project’s history, timetables and communications the former dais had with state transportation officials. 

That led to the discovery of a 2016 feasibility study by FDOT regarding pedestrian bridges at five possible locations in the Florida Keys, from Marathon Community Park at MM 49 to Key Largo’s Rowell’s Waterfront Park. Within the 120-page report, FDOT states that Founders Park was identified as the highest priority out of the five locations reviewed, based on the “highest total annual event attendance generating pedestrian traffic and lack of existing pedestrian facilities.”

But just a few paragraphs later, FDOT states that a temporary pedestrian bridge is not a cost-effective option based on usage at the five locations reviewed that included Founders Park. It also said a permanent pedestrian bridge is not warranted based on the expected usage at the five locations reviewed, including at Founders Park. By August 2017, FDOT recommended to village officials a pedestrian bridge with elevators. 

Rosenthal told the Weekly that his work to halt the pedestrian bridge began two years ago before he ever decided to run for office. 

“I couldn’t get the votes I needed from the old council,” he said. “And quite frankly, that’s why I decided to run.”

As for the bridge’s cancellation, Rosenthal said he didn’t think the decision by FDOT would happen as quickly as it did. 

“I guess they found out we were serious and we were going to continue on, and we got the job done,” he said. 

Heavy machinery and equipment at the site where construction of the Founders Park Pedestrian Bridge was set to take place. JIM McCARTHY/Keys Weekly

The public voiced concerns over costs that escalated from $1.2 million during the project’s early stages to over $4 million in 2020 as the project entered the design phase last May. There were also those in favor of the project who believed it would improve crossing among pedestrians, as well as students walking to Treasure Village Montessori. Rosenthal said he’ll work with the school to address the crossing safety concerns. 

“I told the school a year ago or more that if I was successful in doing away with the bridge, I would work just as hard for them to get something better than what they have as far as kids crossing the street,” he said. “During the campaign, a number of people suggested a signal light at the fire department. I intend to do exactly what I promised the school.

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