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Stuck in traffic in the Florida Keys? FDOT studying replacing Islamorada drawbridge

Traffic backs up approaching the Snake Creek drawbridge at mile marker 85.5 in this undated photo. The Florida Department of Transportation is considering replacing the bascule bridge with either a fixed span or a tunnel.
Traffic backs up approaching the Snake Creek drawbridge at mile marker 85.5 in this undated photo. The Florida Department of Transportation is considering replacing the bascule bridge with either a fixed span or a tunnel.

Tourists and residents alike know that traffic often comes to a crawl along U.S. 1 in the Florida Keys, especially on weekends.

It can be particularly slow through the four-island Village of Islamorada. The culprit for much of the slog is the drawbridge over Snake Creek, mile maker 85.5, which is needed to allow large boats to pass from the bay to the ocean and vice versa. The bridge, which is operated under the authority of the U.S. Coast Guard, opens every hour.

The solution may be building a larger, fixed-span bridge that allows vessels to pass underneath but does not stop the flow of north- and southbound traffic on the highway.

“I think eventually, someday, it’s going to be replaced by a high-span bridge, but I don’t know enough of the details on businesses, the impact on the environment or the cost,” said Deb Gillis, Islamorada’s mayor and a local hotelier.

The Florida Department of Transportation has scheduled a public meeting from from 5 to 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 24, at Founders Park, mile marker 87, to get public input on replacing the drawbridge.

Most members of the five-member Village Council who represent Islamorada favor replacing the bridge, but agree that such a project is likely far off, and expensive. Gillis, who had a meeting with FDOT officials last week on the topic, said the top projected cost came in around $50 million, “and that didn’t include mitigation costs and other costs that will drive the price up.”

The footprint of a fixed-span bridge would have to be much longer than the drawbridge, and the approaches on either side would likely have to move to around mile marker 87 on the north end to mile marker 84, according to the FDOT memo announcing the meeting. This would mean the state would have to buy homes and businesses in the way.

“I’m totally in favor, but my concerns are all the takings of surrounding businesses that might occur on such an expansive bridge,” said Councilman Mike Forster, who owns several area businesses, including the popular Mangrove Mike’s Cafe.

That’s why Forster likes another idea being kicked around: A tunnel underneath Snake Creek.

“Number one, no takings. Two, it eliminates rubbernecking because of the vista, so people won’t slow down to 5 mph. Also, I believe it would create less impact to the residents of Venetian Shores,” he said, referring to the bayside neighborhood at mile marker 85.9.

Councilman Ken Davis also supports replacing the existing bridge, but he wants it to happen sooner than later.

“I think we should replace the drawbridge with a larger fixed bridge, but I’ve never seen FDOT in a hurry,” he said.

FDOT, whose project manager on the bridge proposal, Hong Benitez, did not respond to a request for more information about the options being considered, only agreed to a feasibility study, which could take several years to complete.

“An evaluation of the congestion at the bridge is underway and will provide recommendations for future project development,” the FDOT announcement on the meeting states. “The study objectives include evaluating existing bridge conditions, evaluating future transportation conditions and developing conceptual design plans for replacing the current bridge with a fixed-span bridge.”

Correction: The original story incorrectly stated that the bridge opens every half hour. It opens every hour.

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