State closes local bridge

By Steve Estes

Another Lower Keys fishing bridge is closed.

Last week, the State Parks Department closed the old bridge on South Pine Channel, a popular bridge for fishermen.

According to a department spokesman, the bridge was found to have enough structural deficiencies to warrant safety concerns for folks wanting to use the bridge.

The bridge had been planned as part of the Overseas Heritage Trail, a bicycle/pedestrian path that is slated to eventually run the length of the Keys. Plans called for retrofitting the bridge and re-joining the span so that bicyclists could use the old bridge to cross South Pine Channel without riding alongside traffic on the newer bridge.

“The trail project had belonged to the state Department of Environmental Protection, but was folded into State Parks,” said Monroe County Transportation Planner Trish Smith.

The problem started when the trail changed departmental hands. The original plan had been to leave the cantilevers on the bridge and use those to construct the trail. The parks department wanted to remove the cantilevers so a bridge survey was done. The inspection showed more signs of deterioration than officials had been aware of so the parks service decided to close the bridge.

According to the park service, fences will be built on both ends of the bridge to cut off pedestrian access and those fences will remain in place until repairs can be made.

And when becomes the operative issue, says Smith.

“Right now there are no plans from DOT to repair that span, so we don’t know how long it will remain closed,” she said.

Also at issue if the $1.2 million that had been set aside by DOT to perform the Heritage Trail work on the old bridge.

“It is our contention that the money should stay in Monroe County and be transferred to another project,” said Smith.

There are still several sections of Heritage Trail that need to be completed, as well as a myriad of bridge issues that need to be addressed. Road and bridge money at the local level has been scarce in recent years.

The county receives five cents on each gallon of gasoline purchased in the county to go toward the local road and bridge fund. That has not been enough to keep up with demand. Part of the money issue will be alleviated in coming years with the passage of the infrastructure sales tax by voters last Tuesday. Once wastewater projects have been funded, county officials say they plan to start putting that tax money toward a significant backlog of roads and bridge projects.

Smith said she wants to get the issue in front of the Board of County Commissioners as soon as possible to get their recommendations on priority projects that might be a suitable landing place for the $1.2 million.

“The Florida Parks Service understands that this is a popular fishing bridge,” said Tony Knott, Heritage Trail manager on announcing the decision to close the span. “The next closest bridge areas that we have for the public to fish from in the general location of the South Pine Channel Bridge are; Spanish Harbor Bridge at mile marker 33 and Kemp Channel Bridge at mile marker 23.”

“Public safety is our top priority and we want to make sure our visitors enjoy the natural resources in a safe manner,” said Knott.

South Pine Channel is the second popular fishing bridge lost to deterioration in the last two years. The old Niles Channel fishing bridge had concrete fall into the sea early last year and that span was closed to public access as well until a determination about its future can be made.

“What that means is that access to fishing areas are being diminished,” said Smith. “So the community needs to let the BOCC know what they want to see happen so maybe we can get that priority list together and be able to keep some money in the Lower Keys.”

Although Smith isn’t sure what the outcomes might be, she says DOT is going to take a look at all the old bridge beds.

“DOT will inspect all the old bridges to see what condition they are in. DOT feels it will cost more than anticipated to bring the bridges up to standard and infrastructure money is scarce right now,” she said.

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