A rendition of the Founders Park Pedestrian Bridge project. CONTRIBUTED

A pedestrian bridge over U.S. 1 near Founders Park enters the design phase beginning May 22, the Florida Department of Transportation announced last week. While some are concerned about escalating project costs since initial talks, others believe the pedestrian bridge is a must for public safety. 

Founders Park plays host to a number of events each year that bring large crowds and traffic. The Gigantic Nautical Flea Market and Holiday Fest see high attendance numbers with many cars up and down the Old Highway parking and people crossing safely thanks to the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office. And near Founders and the pedestrian bridge is Treasure Village Montessori School.

Discussions early on over a pedestrian bridge had costs between $1.7 million and $2.9 million. Between the design and build, a cost estimate for the state-funded project stands at $4.68 million today.

With costs exponentially higher than before, Councilman Chris Sante is calling for discussion during the May 21 meeting of Islamorada Village Council, set for 5:30 p.m., to give the council what he says is “one last shot at turning it down.” Instead of spending what soon could be $5-plus million for the project, Sante will suggest installation of a pedestrian crosswalk with hash marks to alert drivers. 

“Originally when it was a low-million-dollar project…  I was fine with that,” he said. “But in reality, we’re going to be spending $5 million or more because it’s going to cost more than what they say.

“The bridge will do nothing to speed up traffic,” he continued. “With events like Gigantic Nautical Flea Market, what’s going to happen is what happens every year; there will be a giant cluster trying to walk across the bridge on the north side of the stairwell. They’re going to say I’m not walking all the way north 200 feet to get on the stairwell to come back. They’re not going to use it, they’re going to be crossing the road.”

Last January, it was learned that utility lines near the site of the project were in conflict and needed 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 at that time 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. 

For Vice Mayor Ken Davis, public safety is his priority. He says he’s supporting the project out of the safety of fellow village residents, the students who attend Treasure Village Montessori and the public at large. 

“I don’t believe we are a community that will ignore the safety of our children over aesthetics,” he said. “We are responsible for the children in this village even when they can’t vote.” 

Davis added that the $4.68 million allocated for the project will head back to FDOT and could go somewhere else other than the village if they don’t take it. 

Councilman Jim Mooney, too, supports the pedestrian bridge project citing safety benefits. He said he’s not chancing losing the money and project and be held responsible for someone dying crossing U.S. 1. 

“It’s a safety issue and traffic issue,” he said. “FDOT wouldn’t put it there if they didn’t think it wasn’t needed. It’s still an issue. People asked for it way back. It’s nothing new.”

With work to install a pedestrian bridge and relocate utilities, the path along the Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail (FKOHT) will be realigned. The widening of shoulders will also take place, as well as construction of concrete barrier walls, installation of a sidewalk along Old Highway from the pedestrian bridge to Treasure Village Montessori and repaving and restriping the roadway.

In 2016, Monroe County and municipalities submitted a request to the state for a mobile pedestrian bridge for safe crossing during large public events in the Keys. Following the submission of proposed locations for use, detailed discussions were had between Keys representatives and FDOT staff. 

Upon consideration over where to store the bridge and costs to place the bridge for each event, FDOT decided at that time to build one permanent pedestrian. That location was Founders Park in Islamorada. 

In October 2017, village council approved to proceed with FDOT’s proposed design for a bridge with elevators and stairs. Costs were around $2 million. In 2018, village council requested approval to FDOT for the design and a slight variation to stamp into the design the village seal on the bridge’s elevator towers. By then, the estimated cost elevated to around $2.5 million. 

In January 2020, the project cost estimate was $4.4 million. The project was expected to commence November 2019, but relocation of utilities delayed it further. 

Councilwoman Deb Gillis placed concerns over costs of the project and ended up opposing the plans in 2018. While she believes the price tag is too high on the project, she said she thinks the village is now up against costs that FDOT would charge if they cancel the project. 

“There’s potentially expenses they’ve laid out they will require us to pay. I don’t know what the price tag will be,” she said. “They were supposed to be researching that and have a figure for the meeting. My decision will be based on how much the village will have to pay for this amount.”

Mayor Mike Forster, who brought the idea forward years ago that led to discussion among mayors and FDOT, said he believes the pedestrian is a model for other projects in the Keys. 

“It was put out there initially as a pilot program for all of Monroe County. Since Islamorada made initial contact, that’s why we were chosen,” he said. “This (kind of project) might be a cure for other areas like Marathon for their festivals and Key West.”

Forster says he supports the project and noted that the money “isn’t earmarked anything else but the pedestrian bridge project.”

“It’s too late to pull the plug,” he said. 

The project will take about two years to complete, weather permitting.

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