The Key West Mystique

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Got some spare cash? Flagler’s Seven Mile Bridge is yours for $62 million

By Linda Grist Cunningham, editor and proprietor

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of Key West Island News and KeyWestWatch Media LLC. She and her husband, a park ranger at Fort Zach, live in Key West with their Cat 5s.

08/29/2013

Heard the one about the guy who’s got a bridge for sale in Brooklyn? Don’t waste your cash. We’ve got a better deal down here in Key West parts.

A 100 years ago, railroad tycoon Henry Flagler funded to the tune of what would be $640 million today the building of a steel and concrete umbilical cord between the south Florida mainland and the island of Key West. Flagler’s stunning engineering marvel made it easy for tourists to trade the real world for a magical town of pirates, big bucks, cigar makers and fishermen. (Pretty much the same strategy as today’s cruise ships, but that’s a story for another day.)

He finished it in 1912 complete with a massive hotel complex. The Casa Marina still dominates the Atlantic side landscape. Today, pieces of Flagler’s railroad run parallel to the 113-mile Overseas Highway, which meanders at 45 MPH through the Florida Keys until it ends at Mile Marker Zero at the corner of Whitehead and Fleming in Key West. Destroyed by a hurricane in 1935, the railroad remnants are used by pelicans, fishermen, the occasional runner and divers. The “oh-my-goodness” effect of the architecture makes for good sightseeing on a seemingly endless drive.

The old Seven Mile Bridge, which, yes, does extend seven miles over open water, is up for sale. The state wants to dump it cheap and Monroe County has the first option, so to speak. As best I can tell, the county’s thinking goes like this: Fix up the bridge and let folks explore it.

The catch? The bridge is falling apart. The Florida Department of Transportation’s engineering firm rates it  “structurally deficient.” It’ll take at least $62 million over the next 30 years to whip that sucker into shape — and that’s just a guess. No one knows how bad the underwater parts are. At best, they’re rated “poor.”

What the heck are you going to do with it anyway? Sell corporate naming rights? Or month-to-month digital, bright light advertising for local businesses? Sponsor the annual Old Seven Mile Bridge Run? We’ve got one of those already on the new Seven Mile Bridge.

I’m all for saving old things. Really, I am. But, this project rates right up there with a big, ol’ “what are they thinking”? (voice inflection rising on that last word.)

Taking on, fixing up and continuously maintaining the old Seven Mile Bridge takes historic preservation into the nuts bowl. I’m pretty sure Monroe County taxpayers can find better uses for a spare $62 million. And, tourists can get their awes on by looking from afar. Something like admiring the Roman Colosseum. With water and pelicans.

And, a much slimmer budget. Restoration plans for the Colosseum are pegged at $32 million and annual operating expenses are about $875,000.

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Linda Grist Cunningham

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of Key West Island News and KeyWestWatch Media LLC. She and her husband, a park ranger at Fort Zach, live in Key West with their Cat 5s.

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