Another village letter is headed to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ desk in relation to the Founders Park Pedestrian Bridge in Islamorada. This time, council members are seeking clarity on the Florida Department of Transportation’s decision to proceed on a project despite a study that said otherwise.
Following unanimous approval by council members on Jan. 14, initial communication sent on Jan. 20 by Mayor Buddy Pinder urged the Florida governor to instruct the FDOT to cease any further construction of the $4.68-million bridge. No response was received by the dais from the governor to date, Pinder told the council at its Feb. 4 meeting.
That led to another 5-0 vote from council instructing the mayor to sign and send a second letter to the governor. In it, the council will specifically ask how FDOT arrived at a decision to move forward on a project when a 2016 feasibility study deemed a pedestrian bridge by the park unwarranted.
Before the dais reached consensus, Councilman Henry Rosenthal took time to discuss email communications he obtained among FDOT officials and the village going back to May 2020 when a discussion was heard by the former council to rescind approval. No decision was made to stop the project at that time, as a majority of village council said ‘no’ to reconsidering and forgoing the project during the discussion period of the May 21, 2020 meeting. An email was sent from the village to FDOT informing them of the discussion.
Fast forward to September 2020, the village asked FDOT to provide a project update to the council and public. On Oct. 1, Sergies Duarte, outreach specialist with FDOT, appeared via Zoom to inform the council that the design phase kicked off in May with plans to install piles for the bridge’s foundation by end of year or early 2021.
Emails among FDOT officials in lead up to the Oct. 1 meeting that Rosenthal obtained acknowledged some questions pertaining to the feasibility study. As read by Rosenthal, that included “what would have it taken for the recommendation for the Founders Park location to be warranted?”
“Is there a volume threshold that wasn’t met? If so, what were those numbers? This could be important because it was a close call, and any information can help us understand the study closer,” an email reads.
The first sentence in a page-and-a-half response by an FDOT official to the question read “Our understanding is District 6 made the decision to proceed with the permanent bridge in August 2017 based on discussion with local public officials.”
“I can’t help but wonder who were those officials and who authorized them to make a deal on behalf and who participated in that discussion?” Rosenthal said. “We now know FDOT itself conceded that it cannot justify the bridge. So why are we even discussing it further?”
Three official actions were taken by the past village council related to the pedestrian bridge. The first was on Feb. 1, 2018, when a resolution was 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.
On Dec. 13, 2018, council approved a resolution for the bridge’s design. On June 27, 2019, a resolution for a maintenance agreement between FDOT and the village was approved. That expense is estimated around $3,500 a year.
A motion by Rosenthal looked to instruct the village attorney to issue a letter to the FDOT District 6 secretary demanding a cease and desist to the bridge’s construction, and furthermore having the village attorney seek civil action against FDOT if they refuse to heed the request. It didn’t get approval with no one seconding the motion.
Pinder said he had a call with James Wolfe, FDOT District 6 secretary, following the release of the first letter to discuss the bridge. He said he specifically asked what changed from the 2016 feasibility that found a permanent bridge near Founders unwarranted to a technical memorandum in 2017 that expressed forward movement. Pinder said he never got an answer in what was a brief conversation.
“We gotta figure out where we go from here,” Pinder said. “This is consuming me. My phone is ringing until 10:30 at night over this.”
In approving a motion to issue a second communication, council was also unanimous in making Councilman David Webb the point person to craft a letter in working with the village attorney and the village’s lobbyists. Webb said he supports another letter requesting state transportation officials explanation why the decision was made to proceed with the bridge despite what’s stated in the 2016 feasibility study.
“I think that we should have an answer by the next meeting or we send a letter to the IG (inspector general).
Councilman Mark Gregg said he supports another letter, but believes the council should consult with the village attorney and their lobbyists.
“To Dave’s point, this is politics in government,” he said “I strongly suggest let’s put our lobbyists to work to provide us with input as to best craft the letter. To fire that off without good advice is political malpractice on our part, in my personal view.”
A groundbreaking on the pedestrian bridge near Founders Park in Islamorada hasn’t occurred yet, but utility work needed to make way for the $4.68 million project commenced last fall.
In January 2020, it was learned that utility lines near the site of the project were in conflict and needed to be moved. Overhead and underground facilities located on the north edge of the FDOT right-of-way next to Founders were to be relocated. Estimates at that time were anywhere from $250,000 and $300,000 for the overhead work and $700,000 to $800,000 for the underground work.
FKEC later said it was able to put together a more efficient design for the transmission pole so crews don’t have to move it. With that change, FKEC estimated the overhead cost to be closer to $150,000 and $200,000. The estimate associated with the underground work didn’t change. Moving costs incurred from the elevated bridge project won’t be reimbursed by FDOT, meaning FKEC shareholders will pay.
FDOT has expended just over $1.1 million on the bridge design/build project.