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Monroe County Officials Talk Rising Seas, And Rising Costs For Climate Mitigation

the photo shows mobile homes in the florida keys flooded by king tides in 2018
Monroe County
Mobile homes in the Keys are flooded by king tides in 2018.

Monroe County commissioners discussed a variety of topics at Wednesday's commission meeting, from putting a toll on the Overseas Highway to encouraging residents to make sure they're counted in the U.S. Census but there was one overarching theme: Getting money to pay for projects to mitigate the impacts of climate change.

The county is looking at multi-billion-dollar bills to pay for elevating roads and homes, shoring up public and commercial buildings, and buying out properties in areas that flood more frequently.

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More than two years ago, they asked the state Department of Transportation to look into the feasibility of charging a toll on U.S. 1, a state road. They haven't heard anything back so on Wednesday, they told county staff to press the case.

"I think a lot of things have happened since the last couple times we talked about this," said Monroe Mayor Heather Carruthers. "We're now looking at what the price tag is going to be on a lot of the mitigation and adaptation strategies we're going to have to employ to combat the impacts of sea level rise."

Even if a toll could only be used on transportation-related projects within a half-mile of the road, it's still worth pursuing, she said.

"Given the skinny nature of our island chain, that could be very helpful for us," she said.

the photo shows a Key Largo street flooded during king tides in december 2018
Monroe County
Some neighborhoods in the Keys are seeing increasingly severe flooding during King tides, like this Key Largo street in December 2018.

Commissioner Sylvia Murphy said she was concerned about equitable access.

"What are you going to do about the fact that we are going to be probably the only county in the United States that you can only get to by toll?" she said. "That question is going to come up and I think you need to be ready with an answer."

County Attorney Bob Shillinger said other places have expensive access.

"It's kind of hard to get to Hawaii without paying something to get there," he said. But he acknowledged that question had posed a problem in earlier attempts to get a toll on the road.

He also pointed out that the Keys aren't all of Monroe County, which also includes a chunk of the Everglades.

"You can go down Loop Road on the mainland without paying the toll," he said.

The same topic was brought up in discussions about getting Keys residents to fill out the Census. Local governments are always concerned about making sure their residents are counted. Commissioner David Rice said it's even more important for the Keys now looking at expensive climate mitigation projects.

"Somehow those bills have to be paid. We can pay them or we can get federal and state help in paying them," he said. "This census determines, to a great degree, those outside-of-Monroe County funds will be to us."

The public has until Sept. 30 to fill out the Census, which can be sent in by mail, filled out online at 2020census.gov or by calling 844-330-2020.

Commissioners also discussed using gas tax money collected by the state to help pay for road improvements, including elevating and drainage. And they voted to go ahead with grant applications for a total of $45 million to pay for elevating roads and improving drainage in neighborhoods from Key Largo to Big Coppitt Key — including the Key Largo neighborhood that was flooded for months last fall.

They also approved another $13.7 million application to pay for moving their public works yard from the low-lying Key West Airport property to higher ground on Rockland Key.