Beginning Monday, the Snake Creek Bridge in Islamorada will be lifted only once an hour during the busiest traffic periods.
The U.S. Coast Guard issued a ruling last week allowing limited openings during a 120-day "test deviation period" running from March 16 through July 14.
"This is great news," said Islamorada Mayor Mike Forster, a leading advocate for the reduced opening schedule.
The bridge at mile marker 85.5 of U.S. 1 in Islamorada will open only at the top of the hour, on demand, between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. daily. If no tall boats have signaled for an opening, the bridge will stay closed.
Previously, the Coast Guard required that the bridge be available for two openings per hour. The bridge, the last remaining draw span along U.S. 1 in the Florida Keys, will still open on demand from boaters from 6 p.m. to 7:59 a.m. during the 120-day test period.
Snake Creek Bridge openings have been blamed for causing lengthy traffic backups, particularly on weekends during this busy winter season. The village of Islamorada council spearheaded the push for fewer openings, and gained support from the cities of Marathon and Key Colony Beach and the Monroe County Commission.
"It's coming together to stand as one island," Forster said Tuesday. "I think everybody realizes the detrimental effect [slow-moving traffic] has on us all."
Coast Guard Lt. Ryan Kilgo, chief of waterways management for the agency's Sector Key West, pointed to the "consensus" from local governments that a once-an-hour schedule should be tested and assessed.
"There was a belief that back-to-back openings [every half hour] are causing an acute problem with allowing traffic to flow through," Kilgo said.
The intent to start the test period was published in the Coast Guard's Notice to Mariners on Friday. After July 14, the bridge will revert to the twice-an-hour schedule while comments on the limited openings are reviewed.
A decision on whether to make the hourly openings permanent will follow, Kilgo said. The time needed to make that determination will depend on the feedback.
"We cannot assume that we know what the comments will reflect," Kilgo said.
The lobster mini-season in late July and Labor Day weekend in early September both come after the test period for hourly openings, noted Mary Swaney, Islamorada assistant village manager.
"That will give us a real comparison to see the effects," Swaney said.
Village officials have so far received one complaint about the reduced openings, but several comments in support.
"If we had asked for testimonials [to support the reduction in openings], it would have been overwhelming," Forster said. "But we didn't have to play that card."
"It seems to be a reasonable thing," County Commissioner David Rice said. "We may inconvenience a few boaters but if we don't, we inconvenience hundreds or even thousands of people. If I'm a boat captain, I can plan around it."
Efforts will be made to make boaters aware of the test schedule, Forster said.
Islamorada has contacted the Florida Department of Transportation about possible signs on the state-owned bridge to advise mariners of the test period.