It’s hard to muster enthusiasm for a root canal, but it’s a necessary evil. That’s what residents of Stock Island and Key West will have to accept with the upcoming Cow Key Channel project, due to start in February 2020. Still shaking off the repercussions of the North Roosevelt renovation as well as Hurricane Irma, it’s hard not to be pessimistic. But good news is that FDOT, the city and county are listening and addressing concerns.

What is indisputable is the Cow Key bridges are in critical condition.

“I’ve seen the pictures,” said Greg Veliz, Key West assistant city manager. “We have a responsibility to make the bridges better for public safety but the inconvenience will be much larger than the North Roosevelt project. It’s a small bridge but our only bridge that all roads lead to in and out. I think FDOT is finally grasping the gravity of the situation.”

While bridges are built for a 50-year lifespan, the northbound bridge dates back to only 1978 and the southbound bridge to 1985. Salt water from wave runners and the bridges’ proximity to the water has corroded bands 2, 3, and 4 and made both bridges structurally unsound, according to FDOT Maintenance Project Administrator Josh Keyser. Usually bridges are inspected every two years but these bridges have been on a one-year cycle leading up to this decision. FDOT ’s initial proposal is a 16- to 20-month, $3.2 million renovation wherein one bridge will be closed at a time, leaving only one lane open in either direction.

“It should be noted the time period 16-20 months is a worst case scenario; it may not be that long,” said Keyser. “All the repair plans have not been finalized; this is still a working process.”

Furthermore, in order to help consolidate traffic, College Road will only be open at the north end, resulting in one way in and out to the hospital, college, jail, golf course and other sites.

“There are so many concerns – where to start?” said Virginia Panico, executive vice president of the Key West Chamber of Commerce, who attended FDOT’s first open meeting on Sept. 20. Panico questioned the timing of a traffic study, which FDOT has yet to do.

“We really listened, and now we are adjusting the plans when to do the study during Fantasy Fest and peak traffic times, not now in September, ” said Keyser.

“Our absolute number one priority is ambulances and fire trucks; we cannot go forward without a plan for emergency vehicles to cross without obstruction,” said Veliz. Keyser commented there would be room on the shoulder of each bridge for emergency traffic.

Also concerning to Panico is the February start time, the height of tourist season and traffic. “The start date doesn’t necessarily mean when we break ground, we are looking at maybe May and have it affect slower seasons,” said Keyser.

“People need to attend FDOT’s open meetings and have their concerns heard.”
—Virginia Panico, of Key West Chamber of Commerce.

“Businesses are barely hanging on after Irma,” said Panico. “Time is money and when company workers are spending more than an hour a day in traffic, jobs are not going to get done. Everyone will pay because there will be overtime.” She has also asked about a temporary bridge and proposed staggering work and school times. Panico plans on contacting state representatives and senators for additional funding to work 24/7 and possibly be done with construction in half the time. Veliz is in favor of the idea.

Greg Sullivan, senior district manager for Waste Management, said his trucks run more than 100 daily trips through the U.S. 1 and Roosevelt intersection.“I think we need a pedestrian crosswalk at the triangle and one continuous green light coming into town that only allows a right hand turn,” said Sullivan. “And leaving town, there would be no immediate left turn onto College Road. Instead, College Road would only be accessible through a new red light at the northern entrance.”

Keyser appreciated the feedback from Panico and Sullivan. “We have taken all their bullet points into consideration and they have been very helpful.”

FDOT plans on having more meetings for public input.

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