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Residents Worry Bridge Repairs May Cause Future Commuting Nightmare For Key West

Nancy Klingener
The Cow Key Bridge is the only way to get on or off Key West by car, bike or foot.

Anyone who has ever driven to or from Key West has crossed the Cow Key Bridge. It's the only road on or off of the island.

Now the state says the bridge's decks and beams need to be replaced on the two spans (one outgoing, one incoming) that connect Key West with the rest of the world.

Rodolfo Roman from the state Department of Transportation says the problem isn't the traffic going over the Cow Key Bridge. It's what goes underneath.

"A lot of folks get on the Jet Skis, Waverunners, and saltwater splashes on the bridge," he said. "And over time, it's been damaging the bridge."

Personal watercraft shoot up a spray of water that hits the underside of the low bridges — it's so low that some boaters have to duck when passing underneath.

Credit Nancy Klingener
Nancy Klingener
Personal watercraft send up a spray of saltwater that has damaged the underside of the Cow Key Bridge.

Roman says the bridge is still safe, but the state wants to fix the problem before it gets worse and they have to impose weight limits or other measures.

News of the state's plan to work on the spans has upset a lot of people in the Lower Keys. Traffic already backs up coming into Key West every morning and leaving every afternoon.

Virginia Panico, executive vice president of the Key West Chamber of Commerce, says 80 to 85 percent of Key West's workforce lives outside of the island. And there are some essential services just over the bridge, on Stock Island.

"We have a hospital, we have a school, we have a college and we have a nursing home and convalescent center," she said.

When Panico and city officials were in Tallahassee for Keys Day recently, they met with the state's transportation secretary to emphasize the disruption the project would cause, she said.

The state plans to cover the new bridge with a coating that should protect it better from the saltwater spray thrown up by personal watercraft, Roman said. And they've changed the construction plans to reduce the time of the project to six months and added an $800,000 incentive the contractor will receive if they finish on time.

The plan is to work 24 hours a day and create flexible lanes. The span that is not being worked on will have three lanes. There will be two lanes coming into Key West in the morning and two lanes leaving in the afternoon.

The project is estimated to cost $5.5 million and is scheduled to start in about a year, with construction beginning right after Easter and wrapping up before Fantasy Fest in late October.

Nancy Klingener covers the Florida Keys for WLRN. Since moving to South Florida in 1989, she has worked for the Miami Herald, Solares Hill newspaper and the Monroe County Public Library.