MARATHON, Fla. - A portion of the historic Seven Mile Bridge, a Florida Keys icon, is to be saved for future generations after officials on Wednesday approved a $77 million restoration and maintenance program that is to continue for the next 30 years.
The Monroe County Commission approved the project to restore and maintain a 2.2-mile segment of the bridge between Marathon and tiny Pigeon Key. The agreement calls for the Florida Department of Transportation to pick up 75 percent of the bill with 18 percent coming from the county and 7 percent from the City of Marathon.
Gus Pego, FDOT's District 6 secretary, said some $30 million are to be spent during initial stages to shore up the existing structure. He said he hopes construction can begin in about two years.
The span was built more than a century ago, when Henry Flagler constructed the Florida Keys OverSea Railroad.
In 1938 the bridge was converted for automobiles and in 1982 the federal government built a new span. "Old 7" was retired and became a fishing pier and walking area, but the harsh marine environment has taken its toll.
"Almost every major component of the bridge needs to be repaired, the substructure, the superstructure and the hand railings in order to make it safe for pedestrians," Pego said. The refurbished span will remain under state jurisdiction and will be designed to support 17-ton vehicles.
"We're going to design it so that emergency vehicles can (go) back and forth from Pigeon Key," he said. "We also envision a light tram taking tourists back and forth to the island."
Today, Pigeon Key, the minuscule island beneath the old bridge that once housed about 400 workers who built Flagler's railroad, is a historical and education center. Visitors are transported there via a ferry because the old bridge has been deemed unsafe for motorized vehicles.
"Folks come from all over the world to see this iconic structure," said Monroe County Administrator Roman Gastesi. "It's utilized by more than 100,000 people every year for walking and biking.
"We think it's a good investment," he said.