An attempt by Islamorada Village Council to halt construction of a $4.68-million pedestrian bridge near Founders Park took a first step on Thursday evening. Following lengthy discussion and spoken opposition from about 20 residents, council members unanimously agreed to pen a letter to the Florida governor asking him to tell the Florida Department of Transportation to cease any further construction of the pedestrian bridge by Founders Park. 

With a 5-0 vote, council authorized Mayor Buddy Pinder to issue a letter to Gov. Ron DeSantis on the highly-discussed bridge project. Utilities have been relocated to make way for the bridge thus far, but no actual construction of the structure has started just yet.

“I’ve been against it since day one,” Pinder said following comments from the public and council members. “Such a structure is contrary to our village mission statement and inconsistent with our community character. It serves no purpose but to dominate our skyline. Ted Williams (the baseball star who lived in Islamorada) wouldn’t have wanted this.”

Pinder said the letter is expected to be crafted next week. 

A dais of five new members, who won their elections in November, sought information and answers to questions over FDOT’s project to install an elevated bridge with elevators late last year. It 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 chance to review information in-depth regarding the project’s history, timetables and communications the former dais had with state transportation officials. 

Discussion of the bridge was postponed to the first meeting of 2021 after a December meeting lasting more than five hours didn’t allow the topic to be brought up at an early hour. It became one of the first matters during the council’s Jan. 14 meeting. 

Acting Village Manager Maria Bassett told council members that 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.

 

Crews from Pike Electric relocated utilities in late 2020 to make way for the pedestrian bridge near Founders Park in Islamorada. JIM McCARTHY/Keys Weekly

“At a staff level, we don’t know what FDOT’s response would be if the village rescinded support and agreement to maintain elevators,” Bassett said. “At this point, this is an FDOT project.”

In his remarks to the public, Rosenthal acknowledged that he didn’t see how construction of a pedestrian bridge is consistent with the village’s mission statement. What started as a bridge to address traffic issues eventually shifted as a project to address the safety of those crossing the highway. 

Rosenthal also alluded to a September 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 after, 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. 

Construction of a permanent bridge at Founders Park at that time was estimated at $1.2 million. 

“DOT’s own study decided it shouldn’t be built,” Rosenthal said. The board of the (Islamorada) Chamber of Commerce agreed. They petitioned the former council urging them to abandon the project. The Florida Keys Scenic Alliance also opposed, saying it didn’t fit the character of the scenic highway.”

A rendition of the Founders Park Pedestrian Bridge project by the Florida Department of Transportation. CONTRIBUTED

But FDOT kept the subject of a pedestrian bridge at Founders Park on a spreadsheet of transportation issues, according to Bassett. By August 2017, FDOT recommended to then-mayor Jim Mooney a pedestrian bridge with elevators. 

 “They were still considering the project in March and April of 2017,” she said. “It’s possible the 2016 report wasn’t a final determination for whatever reason.”

Councilman David Webb said the technical memorandum in 2017 didn’t come with any study to support their switch in favor of the project. He said a significant amount of resources was expended by a state agency who used its own protocols for a project they initially believed wasn’t warranted. 

“This seems to be a horrible policy decision,” he said. 

Twenty-two residents joined the meeting via Zoom where a majority voiced opposition. Bob Lodge, resident of Islamorada for more than 40 years, said an arm light by the fire station should be looked at.

“You can convert that to a red light to let people cross, which makes sense,” he said. “Where people do park on the Old Road next to the trailer park, they’re not going to be walking down to some crosswalk. They’re going to walk across the street when traffic breaks.”

Joe Roth, an Islamorada Chamber of Commerce board member and an Upper Keys Rotary member, said a bridge across the street will do nothing to cure the vehicular traffic problem, which exists due to the Snake Creek Bridge that goes up every hour, and the shifting of two traffic lanes to one near Coral Shores High School. He, too, acknowledged that it would change the community character. 

“I think we need to take a step back and take a look at this again,” he said. 

Resident Van Cadenhead, who grew up in Islamorada and spoke in favor of the project, said the village will be on the hook for all the money FDOT has spent thus far.

An aerial view of the highway near Founders Park where crews have moved utilities for the Florida Department of Transportation’s pedestrian bridge project. DAVID GROSS/Keys Weekly

“It’s a big boon to traffic safety at Founders Park,” he said. “I think it’s good for the community, having lived here all my life.”

Pinder said the village received 30 emails opposed to the bridge and eight emails in favor of the project. 

Councilman Mark Gregg said someone’s going to be unhappy no matter which way council goes. He urged on the side of caution in not going “willy nilly” and demanding things within the village’s letter. 

“There could be legal consequences, and we have to bear that in mind,” he said. “It’s imperative in my view to taxpayers that we don’t have any financial responsibility, or if we do that’s minor or insignificant.”

Councilman Pete Bacheler said he expressed his opposition to the bridge during a run for office two-and-a-half years ago. He said the people who spoke against the bridge Thursday evening were persuasive in their tones with points well taken. 

“We finally got some numbers and comments from people and action by the public that we’ve been waiting for a very, very long time,” he said. “This is very nice to see and I’m very pleased with it, and I’m pleased with what citizens are saying.”

While the village prepares a letter to the governor, Bacheler said the state “doesn’t have to listen to us.”

“They can thumb their noses to us,” he said. “We’ve got no strength or players in their game.”

The Weekly is currently awaiting an official response from FDOT on the matter.

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