Virginia Panico, executive vice president of the Key West Chamber of Commerce, was prepared to “go to the mattresses” for Key West when it came to FDOT’s Cow Key Channel Bridge renovation. Armed with non-negotiable terms, Panico has been instrumental, along with city officials, in helping set the guidelines with FDOT. The most significant change is that the repairs are down from the original 16 to 20 months to just 180 days of lane closures.
“I told them no rain days, only religious holidays, which there are none during that period, and they will work 24/7,” said Panico.
Along with Mayor Teri Johnston, City Manager Jim Scholl, City Attorney Sean Smith and Greg Sullivan of Waste Management, Panico met with FDOT Secretary Kevin Thibault in Tallahassee during Florida Keys Day. They were able to secure a $500,000 incentive to finish on time and hash out contract details, although rain days are still on the table.
“They finally realized the severity of the impact. Secretary Thibault had never been to the Keys, and their traffic studies were done off-season,” said Panico. Emphasizing the economic impact on the Lower Keys, Panico stressed how all residents, from business owners to consumers, would be absorbing the cost.
“Time is money to workers, 80 to 85% of workers and supplies are on the other side of the bridge for Key West,” said Panico. She used the example of a plumber who has to get supplies on Stock Island; the time to get there and back will be billed to the customer. Numerous ambulances and fire trucks cross daily for emergency services. Waste Management alone sends 80 trucks per day over the bridge.
FDOT came back on March 26 for another public meeting at the Beachside Marriott, and Panico met with them beforehand. “I am happy to say they returned with even more money, and now there is an $800,000 incentive to finish early.”
Preparation will start in March 2020, but lane closure and traffic will not be affected until April 2020 and hopefully end by October 2020, before season. The goal is to be done on Dec. 31, 2020. During the last 80 days of the project, all lanes will be open with only nighttime closures when needed. There will be alternate lane closures such as: two lanes will be open inbound in the morning and two open outbound for daily rush hours. College Road will only be accessible from the entrance by the Key West Golf Club and Lower Keys Medical Center’s emergency entrance. Bus drivers will be allowed to exit College Road at the intersection before the Cow Key Channel bridge.