A newly-seated council wants information and answers to some questions over the Florida Department of Transportation’s pedestrian bridge project at Founders Park that’s currently in the final design stages. 

The dais is specifically seeking costs the village could incur if the village council wanted to halt the project altogether and if FDOT agreed. Costs and information for a potential referendum are also sought by council, as well as FDOT project timetables and communications the former dais had as the project proceeded.

Councilman Henry Rosenthal raised the topic during the village council’s Nov. 19 meeting, which saw the dais, village clerk and village attorney inside the Founders Park Community Center and the public and village staff viewing online. Rosenthal suggested a referendum, stating that it would apply “much needed transparency with respect to this decision for the people of Islamorada.” In speaking to the elections office, Rosenthal said it would cost $25,000 for a referendum where everyone can vote. It would also take three public hearings before the referendum. 

“I think this type of project deserves that type of consideration that everybody should participate whether up or down,” he said. “The transparency of this project deserves that kind of a vote, and I wanted to have some direction to accomplish that.”

Estimated at $4.68 million, the pedestrian bridge project — funded entirely by the state — entered the design phase in May. Relocation of utilities in the bridge’s way commenced last month, and current project timelines show construction-related activities to install concrete piles either by year’s end or early 2021. 

Councilman Mark Gregg asked what kind of financial exposure would follow if the village told FDOT to end the bridge project. Gregg said he wouldn’t be supportive of such a move if it resulted in increased taxpayer exposure. While applauding Rosenthal for the inquiry and championing the cause, Gregg said the reality is it’s an FDOT project.

“We’ve all looked at it. We all have our feelings about it. My particular feeling is I don’t want to see the bridge either,” he said. “But it’s here, it’s voted on and it’s going forward. FDOT is like a battleship when they get going. It’s hard to stop them.” 

Rosenthal didn’t have an exact figure over potential cost for ending the project, but he said it would be considerable. 

“There’s no question about that,” he said. 

The project dates back to 2016 when talks started among Keys municipalities over a mobile pedestrian bridge for safe crossing during large events. It was later found that such a bridge wasn’t feasible. A submission of proposed locations ensued, leading FDOT to choose Founders Park in Islamorada. 

In February 2018, council approved the selection of FDOT’s proposed pedestrian bridge crossing over U.S. 1 at Founders Park and maintenance responsibilities for the elevators. In December 2018, village council was unanimous in supporting a resolution for a design variation to FDOT’s project in order to stamp the village seal on the bridge’s elevator towers. 

Costs at the outset were around $2 million. By January 2020, project costs had jumped to $4.4 million. In addition, an expected start date of November 2019 was delayed to move electric and water utilities that were in the way. While FDOT paid to move the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority’s 180 linear feet of water main, expenses to move Florida Keys Electric Cooperative’s overhead and underground electric utilities were paid by shareholders from Ocean Reef to Marathon.  

FKEC said it was able to bring costs for overhead work, originally anticipated anywhere from $250,000 to $300,000, down to between $150,000 and $200,000. Cost estimates for underground work haven’t changed, at $700,000 to $800,000. Work is underway to move those utilities. 

“Costs kept escalating and escalating that were dumped on the village … unanticipated costs from the move that no one talked about,” said Councilman David Webb. “We’re going to have maintenance costs that I haven’t seen. There’s going to be continuing long-term costs one way or another.”

Village Manager Maria Bassett said the village agreed to maintenance costs associated with the pedestrian bridge’s elevator. That expense is $3,500 a year. 

Bassett went on to say it’s “almost financially irresponsible to consider halting the bridge project when there’s so much pressure to look at things from a financial perspective and being careful in what money’s spent on.”

“I would say you’re looking at a lot of money if you’re looking to stop it,” she said. 

Village Attorney Roget Bryan said there’s a specific process for citizen-driven and council-led referendums. Bryan emphasized that part of the process is crafting language carefully to ensure the question isn’t misleading. In addition, Bryan said there are several layers to the bridge halt discussion. 

“If the ultimate question is do you want this bridge or not, that’s one question. The question of can this project practically be stopped, that’s another question. How much would it cost to stop the project?” he said. 

Rosenthal said he’s had verbal and written communications with FDOT for about a year. He said they’re anticipating the new council may take a different view on the bridge. 

“They do know something is in motion and I told them that a long time ago,” he said. 

Former councilwoman Deb Gillis took to the podium following a lengthy discussion by the dais to tell them that many public meetings and comments were had throughout the state’s bridge project process. A couple citizen-driven referendum efforts occurred in that time, but they never received enough signatures, she said. 

“It’s not my favorite project either, but it is the path that was voted on,” Gillis said. “If you bring it forward, understand that we did have public input on this. It just wasn’t a council decision.”

Bridge construction isn’t the only facet of FDOT’s pedestrian bridge project. Realigning the Florida Keys Overseas Highway Trail, widening the shoulders and constructing wall barriers will also take place. Concrete sidewalk will be installed along Old Highway, as there’s no pedestrian connection from the bridge site to Treasure Village Montessori. Chevron pavement markings will be added to replace plastic poles on Old Highway between East Ridge Drive and South Drive. 

Council is set to meet for a virtual meeting Dec. 17 at 5:30 p.m. More information on the bridge project is at fdot.gov (search for Founders Park Pedestrian Bridge) or at islamorada.fl.us (click “more news”).

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