Florida Keys

At last drawbridge in Keys, good news for cars and bad news for boats

Southbound U.S. 1 traffic in the Keys backs up at the Snake Creek Bridge in Islamorada.
Southbound U.S. 1 traffic in the Keys backs up at the Snake Creek Bridge in Islamorada.

A temporary rule that limits openings of the last remaining drawbridge in the Florida Keys seems likely to become law at Snake Creek.

A 14-month test period for the limited-opening schedule at the Snake Creek Bridge at mile marker 85.5 is scheduled to end next week. Now the U.S. Coast Guard has recommended that not more than one opening per hour, between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m., should become the permanent bridge schedule.

"Other than the installation of a fixed [high-arch] bridge, it's the next-best fix for our traffic problems," Islamorada Village Council member Mike Forster said Monday.

Islamorada officials received word Thursday that the Coast Guard's local Waterways Management Branch has submitted a rule endorsing the once-an-hour opening. One final signature would make it official.

The interim test period started in March 2015 in response to complaints from the Village Council and residents about lengthy U.S. 1 traffic backups blamed on Snake Creek openings that could happen twice an hour if requested by boaters.

"Vehicle traffic near the Snake Creek Bridge has negatively impacted Islamorada and surrounding communities during peak vehicle traffic time periods," the Coast Guard summarized.

People commenting in support of the limited openings were more direct.

"Please, please keep the [limited] bridge opening ... for all of us hard workers who just want to get home at a decent hour," wrote Carol Koris, who commutes to the Middle Keys.

"Opening the drawbridge at Snake Creek on an hourly basis is one of the best ideas to come along from a government agency in decades," commented longtime Plantation Key resident Geni Mayes-Benedict. "During the high winter season and special events ... traffic combined with frequent bridge openings have made for very frustrating local travel."

"The reduction in traffic back-ups was immediately noticeable and greatly appreciated," Mark Riley wrote. "It is rare such a simple solution has such a positive and immediate effect on a problem. Keep up the good work."

More than 150 other commenters voiced similar sentiments. Forster, who advocated the closing, said he has heard "not one single negative comment."

"That has to be pretty much the sentiment of the [Coast Guard] for them to act so swiftly on this issue," he said.

A handful of boaters protested. One called it "an undue burden on the sailors and boaters who sometimes cannot predict exact schedules and often cannot count on water and weather conditions...."

When closed, the Snake Creek Bridge has a 27-foot-high clearance, sufficient to allow most boats using Snake Creek to pass underneath. "Vessels that can safely transit under the bridge may do so at any time," says a Coast Guard notice.

Owners of sailboats or sportfishing boats with tuna towers or tall outriggers can wait for the hourly opening or travel about six miles to the Channel 5 Bridge.

"There have not been the consequences that some people feared," Forster said last summer. "There has been no serious backlash, no periods of boats lined up and waiting under the bridge."

The bridge opens up demand between 6 p.m. to 7:59 a.m. Openings on demand for tall boats were the rule at Snake Creek until 2001, when the Coast Guard approved a two-openings-per-hour schedule between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m.

The Florida Keys has one of the last manned toll booths in the state. The toll collectors describe the work of greeting vacationers and the "old Florida" spirit of a slower life, where you simply enjoy the water. Video by Charlie Trainor Jr. / M