A request for $13.5 million to repair 23 historic but badly deteriorated old railroad bridges in the Florida Keys may barely count as a down payment.
Staff with the state Department of Environmental Protection has asked Monroe County commissioners to endorse the agency's proposal to the Florida Legislature for a $13.5 million appropriation in the new state budget.
However, improving all the 23 Flagler-era bridges as part of a biking and hiking trail could top $184 million, a DEP report says.
"The 23 bridges are an essential part of the Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail [intended] to fulfill the expressed vision by Monroe County citizens to have a continuous trail along U.S. 1 spanning the length of the Keys," says a draft resolution going to commissioners at their Jan. 20 meeting at the Marathon Government Center.
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However, several of the century-old bridges built to carry the Key West Extension of the Florida East Coast Railway are in danger of near collapse, creating a hazard for pedestrians and to boaters traveling underneath.
“The deck slab overhangs (installed to widen the bridges for vehicle traffic) on numerous bridges have deteriorated so badly that portions of the overhangs are threatening to collapse into the water,” according to the state report. "The Niles Channel Bridge has already experienced this in 2011."
The old Bahia Honda Bridge has signs on it warning boaters of falling debris. Other bridges — including the Old Seven Mile (owned by the state Department of Transportation) — have been closed to fishing and other activities due to the danger.
Funds requested this year will include $5 million to remove the "most severely damaged [or] crumbling sections of cantilevers," or bridge-deck supports. Another $3.5 million would restore the scenic overlook station on the old Bahia Honda Bridge.
The remaining $5 million would provide a comprehensive look at the current condition of the 23 bridges and calculate chances of restoring them to a useful condition.
An assessment notes that four historic bridges — at Niles Channel, Bahia Honda, Moser Channel (Seven Mile) and Channel Five — have sections removed for boat navigation, likely leaving a sizable and permanent gap in any continuous trail.
Handrails along old bridges, many now using converted railway tracks, may have to be raised to meet a current 42-inch-high requirement for bike and hiking trails.
The 23 bridges targeted by the project run from Channel Two at mile marker 73 to the Rockland Channel Bridge at mile marker 9.8.