Crews work underneath Snake Creek Bridge last September. Rehab work at the bridge commenced in July 2019 and saw completion last month. CONTRIBUTED

Motorists traversing through Islamorada were halted on the evening of June 10 after a malfunction at Snake Creek Bridge prevented the leaf from returning to its down position. Vehicles sat still for an hour. 

Twelve days later, on June 22, the all-too-familiar occurrence happened yet again, this time when an issue kept cars idle for more than 20 minutes. 

Recent malfunctions at Snake Creek Bridge, a bascule bridge that carries Overseas Highway and connects Plantation and Windley Keys, are among several witnessed this year. As breakdowns continue, any long-term solution in the way of a replacement bridge appears to be in question and far out. 

“At this time, the project is a ‘candidate project,’” said Tish Burgher, communications manager with FDOT, regarding a possible replacement bridge. 

Built in 1981, Snake Creek Bridge at MM 86 is the only remaining drawbridge operating in the Keys. In the late 2000s, the drawbridge over Jewfish Creek in Key Largo was replaced by a beam bridge. In Marathon, the Boot Key Harbor drawbridge was closed and abandoned in 2009. 

Last July, work began on the Snake Creek bridge, with repairs to its electric and structural components, as well as cleaning and painting of bridge steel structures. In May, the Florida Department of Transportation announced that work was complete on the bridge — with costs to repair and rehab it amounting to $1.6 million.  

Delays and closures were seen through the project’s duration, mainly during non-peak hours to keep traffic flowing during normal business hours. Issues continue, however, and it’s bringing some concerns among local officials. 

“They’re not buying parts that are quality, or they’re just not paying attention to detail and doing something wrong,” said councilman Jim Mooney. “I can’t imagine how this thing breaks four times in basically six months. It doesn’t make sense.”

In 2017, Islamorada Village Council members passed a resolution requesting FDOT and the U.S. Department of Transportation consider a replacement bridge over Snake Creek through either a fixed bridge or tunnel to improve traffic flow. FDOT agreed to conduct a feasibility study, which cost $200,000.

In April 2019, FDOT officials visited Islamorada to unveil possible options to eliminate congestion at the bridge, which goes up every hour during the week to allow larger boats to pass. None of the options seemed to be the glowing choice. 

Councilman Ken Davis said FDOT should look at placing a fixed-span bridge over Whale Harbor while locking down Snake Creek Bridge. 

“They came down and put on a dog-and-pony show, and I sent them a letter basically saying ‘hey, build this over Whale Harbor, not Snake Creek.’ You have a bunch of traffic there,” he said. “It’s a no-wake zone; you have large boats coming and going there already.”

Mooney believes FDOT should consider building a new bridge now on the first fill by Papa Joe’s, MM 79. 

“I’d start right there and do a high bridge all across the Fills and end at the last bridge,” he said. “It would peak out exactly where Indian Key Bridge is at right now and it would end before you got to Robbie’s, so there’d be no takings of properties. You can take all the fill land and take it out and restore it to its water swell.”

With a feasibility study complete, Burgher said FDOT is scheduling the next steps that include developing a scope report, an efficient transportation decision making (ETDM) screening and a project development and environmental study. Those steps will take a few years, however, with the scoping report and ETDM not expected to be completed until 2024. The project development and environmental study isn’t expected to start until 2025-26. 

As for the bridge issues, Burgher said FDOT will continue scheduled inspections and “perform maintenance accordingly.”

Snake Creek Bridge raised: Snake Creek Bridge is raised on the hour during the week to allow boats to pass through. JIM McCARTHY/Keys Weekly

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