A proposal floated to research lengthening the time in between openings of the Snake Creek drawbridge was soundly rejected last week by the five-member Islamorada Village Council following strong opposition from the public.
The suggestion was introduced as a way to possibly cut down on traffic congestion along U.S. 1 through the village, especially on weekends. But most of the roughly 60 people who came to the June 1 council meeting at Founders Park said they were against the idea, arguing the bascule bridge is too vital to the community’s water-based economy.
“Our greatest navigable waterway is though that bridge,” said Brad Lange, an Islamorada charter fishing boat captain. “That bridge is an asset. It’s a big deal. It needs to stay open.”
The U.S. Coast Guard has the authority to decide how many times the bridge opens. Last year, the agency reduced openings from on the half hour to on the hour at the request of the village. The Village Council unanimously rejected a proposal last month to ask the Coast Guard to study the impact of having it open every three hours.
The proposal rejected last week was to have the Coast Guard look into opening it every two hours. But even that was too long, opponents to the measure said.
Another boat captain said waiting for an hour for the bridge to open already poses dangers for bigger boats idling in the channel, especially as more vessels arrive jockeying for position to go through once the bridge opens.
“It’s already no fun sitting out there for four 45 minutes, and now I might have to sit there for an hour and 45 minutes? It’s not fun and it’s not safe,” the captain said.
In terms of what’s causing traffic jams, especially on the weekends, council members and constituents blamed varying driving habits and more tourists than ever coming to the Keys.
“This is really just bigger than the bridge,” said Mayor Jim Mooney. “It’s human nature.”
Mooney said that since much of U.S. 1 is one lane, and because of bottlenecks in places where it turns into two lanes, as well as delays caused by vehicles pulling in and out of business driveways, one car or truck can have a tremendous impact on traffic flow from the mainland to Key West.
“It doesn’t really start at the bridge,” Mooney said. “It starts in Homestead.”
Local attorney Cheryl Culbertson agreed, adding the influx of tourists in Monroe County is the root of the problem given the design of U.S. 1.
“We were not designed to handle this volume of traffic,” she said.
As far as what could be done about traffic, several ideas were bandied about at the meeting, most of which likely don’t have much of a chance of happening or, if they do, their fruition is decades off.
Resident Martin Moe proposed a toll, which he acknowledged would do little to relieve congestion, but the money collected could be used to pay for improvements to the highway.
“Use that money in whatever way possible to mitigate the problem,” Moe said.
Councilman Mike Forster said he’s been in talks with state and federal officials to research the legalities and possibilities of a U.S. 1 toll.
“We’re moving forward on it,” Forster said. “We’ll see what we can do.”
Also discussed was replacing the bascule bridge with a taller, fixed span. But that option would cost hundreds of millions of dollars and would take years to even be designed and approved.
“We’re talking 20 years out,” said Councilwoman Deb Gillis.
Resident John Fernandez said making U.S. 1 four lanes for the entirety of the island chain would be the only real solution, but he acknowledged that option is a nonstarter with most Keys residents.
“I know this is heresy here in the Keys,” he said.
After the vote, Mooney tempered expectations among those at the meeting that the answer to the traffic issue is anywhere near clear or close.
“There is no simple fix,” he said. “There will never be a simple fix.”
David Goodhue: 305-440-3204