A rendition of the Founders Park Pedestrian Bridge project. CONTRIBUTED

A pedestrian bridge funded by the Florida Department of Transportation near Founders Park in Islamorada will move ahead after a majority of village council said ‘no’ to reconsidering and forgoing the project. 

Councilman Chris Sante asked the council during the May 21 virtual meeting to rethink what’s now a $4.68 million project to construct a bridge with elevators and stairs to move people across U.S. 1. Sante said initial talks surrounded a walkway, but it morphed into something more to the point where it’s “way out of hand.” As for safety, Sante said crossing near Coral Shores High School is more dangerous. 

“I just want us to reconsider, at least ask for a referendum,” Sante said. 

Vice Mayor Ken Davis voiced support for the project and noted in his remarks that FDOT has been working on the project for several years with a lot of money invested. Davis said the village doesn’t control the cost; it’s FDOT that decides the cost and what they’ll pay. 

“If we suddenly dump it and say nevermind, we can kiss anything else we ask for in the next decade goodbye,” he said. “People are asking for a fixed bridge over Snake Creek or Whale Harbor to alleviate the opening of the bridge. That’s not going to happen if we tell them no to this after they’ve done all the work.”

Councilman Jim Mooney said he isn’t changing his mind on the project. 

“I’m not going to jeopardize anyone’s life,” he said. “It’s an FDOT project. They don’t do projects that they think won’t work. With traffic lights, FDOT said no more traffic lights. It makes traffic worse.”

Sergies Duarte, senior community outreach specialist with FDOT, said the project has entered the design phase. 

“The FDOT contactor’s project schedule is being finalized, and once the design phase timeline is finalized, we will share the information,” he said.

To complete the project, water and electric utilities in conflict with the pedestrian bridge’s location will need 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 back in January were anywhere from $250,000 and $300,000 for the overhead work and $700,000 to $800,000 for the underground work. 

Since the initial examination of the project, FKEC 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 design change, FKEC estimates the overhead cost to be closer to $150,000 and $200,000. The cost estimate associated with the underground work hasn’t changed. 

Moving costs incurred from the elevated bridge project won’t be reimbursed by FDOT, meaning FKEC shareholders will pay. Davis said it’s $2.15 tacked onto the bill per month for a year.  

Among the other utilities affected are the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority’s piping. Julie Cheon, public information manager, confirmed that 180-linear feet of 18-inch piping will be relocated as it’s in conflict with the bridge project where workers will need to dig. FDOT will take on moving costs due to a pre-existing agreement for an easement.

“It’s a lot less than what originally needed to be done,” Cheon told the Weekly in January. “Initially, they were looking to relocate 700 linear feet.”

Estimated costs to move the pipe were not immediately made available by FDOT.

Councilwoman Deb Gillis said the project began with the village and not FDOT. She said she doesn’t believe FDOT would frown upon the decision to forgo the project since budgets are tight. 

“I think the elevator would be a major expense and it would be broken more than it’s in service,” she said. 

Mayor Mike Forster said he hasn’t changed his mind as a supporter of the project. With talks of a referendum, he said there should be 526 votes by a group of people who don’t want to see the bridge project happen. 

“And that should have happened months ago, not two weeks from digging dirt and putting it up,” he said. 

Forster added that the funds allocated for the bridge project cannot be moved to another village project like the Fills.

The project will take two years, weather permitting, to complete once it begins.

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