an aerial view of a bridge over a body of water

We live on an archipelago chain of 182 islands connected to the mainland by 47 bridges. These islands situated between the beautiful blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean and the Florida Bay, have seen boom and bust, a parade of colorful characters and luminaries, are home to the only living coral reef system in the continental U.S., and the Harry S. Truman Little White House in Key West — Florida’s only presidential site. 

Monroe County, which contains all the islands of the Florida Keys, is the only county in Florida fully designated as an area of critical state concern. 

To say that we are unique is an understatement, and, for these reasons and more, Monroe County is a highly desirable destination for visitors.

As a worldwide destination welcoming some 5 million visitors a year, Monroe collected $384 million in sales tax for the state of Florida in 2023. Despite this abundance, our communities have significant unmet needs that threaten the ability for many of us to remain in the Keys.

The number one challenge for our workforce is the ability to find affordable housing. The shortage of housing for our teachers, law enforcement, service industry, healthcare and childcare workers — the engines of our communities —  stems from a lack of buildable land and the ever-increasing costs of construction and property insurance. While folks can afford the mortgage or rent payment today, there is no guarantee that they will be able to do so in the future.

Concurrently, homeowners face challenges in making our existing housing stock more resilient. 

Monroe County is working in earnest to submit applications to FEMA’s Flood Mitigation Assistance Grant Program for elevation and rebuild. But we’re on FEMA’s timeline for those approvals, and our contractors in the county, as well as outside home elevation contractors, are up against a shortage of workers due to the lack of affordable housing. There is some relief from the state’s My Safe Florida Home to provide grant funding for wind mitigation, but every year since its reenactment, the program runs out of funding before all the requests have been processed. 

And our challenges reach beyond individual housing concerns to flooding in low-lying areas on roads and in neighborhoods and business districts. While the county is making some progress in elevating roads, the urgency is increasing.

We are beyond the point of coming up with long-term solutions to our transportation and traffic issues. The number of vehicles in the Keys during high season is unsustainable and it’s dangerous.

When we look at the totality of these items, the county cannot and should not tax our residents to shoulder these costs. The solution is to find a large pool of money that is not dependent on taxes that will negatively affect our residents.

I believe that this can only be resolved by a toll at the two entrances to the Keys and a resort tax on all people flying into our airport. In the history of our county, we have had tolls whether at Card Sound, Lower Matecumbe or Big Pine Key.

According to the annual average daily traffic (Florida Department of Transportation), we have about 29,500 vehicles coming into Monroe County daily. If we reduce that amount by 25% for county residents coming and going, that means that we have approximately 22,125 vehicles coming in daily. If we charge each of these vehicles a $20 toll (one way) that would equal approximately $161,000,000 in revenue annually. In my opinion, that should be enough to take care of the road as well as our folks.

We need to engage our representatives and senators in Washington to ask them to initiate legislation to turn over control of the Overseas Highway to Monroe County. This also means responsibility for the road, but we can generate more than enough money to take care of the road as well as, more importantly, take care of our community.

— Mel E. Montagne, Key Largo