Key West Bike, Walk, Transit and Streets for People Top 10 Stories for 2020 – #10: The Cow Key Bridge Carmageddon That Wasn’t

By Chris Hamilton, December 21, 2020

Blame It On the Jet Skis

Blame it on the jet skis. FDOT told the City a few years ago that the Cow Key Bridge’s two spans needed full rehabilitation because of saltwater corrosion. It seemed that jet skis spraying the saltwater on the underside of the bridge made both spans structurally unsound. So, giving the City plenty of notice, FDOT said that in 2020 they were going to close one bridge span at a time leaving one lane in each direction for 16-20 months. For the first time in Key West history, EVERYONE spoke with one voice. NO!

Traffic Backups? Clutch the Pearls

The collective clutching at pearls by Key West citizens of all stripes seemed to catch FDOT off guard. The Chamber of Commerce led the charge! Said Executive Director Virginia Panico: “Businesses are barely hanging on after Irma. Time is money and when company workers are spending more than an hour a day in traffic, jobs are not going to get done. Everyone will pay because there will be overtime.” 

“Our absolute number one priority is ambulances and fire trucks; we cannot go forward without a plan for emergency vehicles to cross without obstruction,” said then Assistant City Manager Greg Veliz. He added “The inconvenience will be much larger than the North Roosevelt project. It’s a small bridge but our only bridge that all roads lead to in and out.”

Said then Keys Weekly writer Hays Blinckmann in her opening paragraph in a story about the project on October 2, 2018: “It’s hard to muster enthusiasm for a root canal, but it’s a necessary evil. That’s what residents of Stock Island and Key West will have to accept with the upcoming Cow Key Channel project, due to start in February 2020. Still shaking off the repercussions of the North Roosevelt renovation as well as Hurricane Irma, it’s hard not to be pessimistic. But good news is that FDOT, the city and county are listening and addressing concerns.”

FDOT Accommodates the Pearl Clutchers

Root canal is an apt description of what people expected. To their credit FDOT listened. They added money to the project to shrink the timeline from 16-20 months to less than 9 months, by working around the clock. Instead of only two lanes they figured out how to have 3 open during rush hours and then they came up with more money to offer incentives to the construction contractors to meet their deadlines. Project costs zoomed to make folks happy. In the end the total project cost was $6.2 million plus another $800,000 in incentives. No price was too high to keep traffic flowing. Bus routes were changed, and a new light was installed at the north end of College Road. And yet…

Carmaggeden!

Still, everyone was freaking out as the project approached this February. Newspaper headlines rang out with “Traffic Nightmare,” “Carmeggeden,” “Headaches for Motorists,” and leaders called it a “great disruption” and “huge inconvenience.” Everyone panicked…

Enter COVID

And then the COVID Pandemic happened. And the shutdown between mid-March and June 1. And between travel restrictions, closings in other places, and less travelers overall, the bridge work went on and didn’t seem to adversely affect those using the road. There was little gnashing of teeth or whaling or whining. The project went smoothly. Said the Mayor of the project: “It almost went unnoticed.”

As we write this, FDOT is packing up, having finished paving and marking and the project done early. In fact, all four lanes have been open since late September. Would we have traded the inconvenience for not having to deal with COVID? ABSOLUTELY! But Carmageddon never did come to Key West. We can be thankful for small favors. And THAT’S why this story is #10 in 2020.

All four lanes of Cow Key Channel Bridge, between Key West and Stock Island, reopened on Sept. 25. MANDY MILES/Keys Weekly
Chris Hamilton
Chris Hamilton

A native of the District of Columbia, where for a couple decades+ he led the nationally renown Commuter Services unit for Arlington County, VA’s DOT, Chris has lived in Key West since 2015. He lives downtown and works and volunteers for a couple non-profits.

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