'Tremendous victory' for Everglades restoration as $100 million Tamiami Trail bridging project fully funded by feds, Florida legislature
A paddle through the Northern Everglades with News-Press reporters Chad Gillis and Andrew West Andrew West, News-Press
Money to remove a bottleneck that’s parched the Everglades for more than nine decades is now in place for a $100 million project to raise the Tamiami Trail’s course through the River of Grass.
Since it was opened in 1928, the roadway has acted as a dam, stopping the natural movement of water to the Glades and creating dry conditions that have contributed to wildfires and killed huge swaths of seagrass in Florida Bay.
Monday, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced it will give Florida $60 million for the work, which will be added to $40 million kicked in by the Florida Legislature.
The money will be used to finish elevating the remaining 6.5 miles of roadway between two bridges built during the earlier phase, and install six sets of concrete culverts between them.
Florida lawmakers including Gov. Ron DeSantis, Congressman Francis Rooney, R-Naples, Congressman Brian Mast, R-West Palm Beach, Sen. Marco Rubio, Sen. Rick Scott, Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, and others urged the feds to fund the project.
The cross-state highway radically altered natural water movement in the eastern United States' largest wilderness area. Completed decades later, the Naples-Miami portion of Interstate 75 known as Alligator Alley to the north of the Trail was built with culverts to allow water and wildlife to move below the roadway.
Last year, the first phase of the project opened: a mile-long, $81-million bridge so water could move into the Shark and Taylor sloughs. The work also will help reduce the kind of flooding in nearby water conservation areas that happened after Hurricane Irma, Rubio said in a statement.
“Fighting to expedite Everglades restoration remains one of my top priorities,” he said. “Without this critical funding to raise the road, recently authorized projects to the north, including the Central Everglades Planning Project and the Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir would not be able to achieve their full restoration capabilities. Everglades restoration is absolutely necessary to ensure the environmental sustainability and economic vitality of one of the most dynamic regions of our nation, and I will continue to work collaboratively across federal, state, and local government to address any roadblocks slowing down our progress.”
Rooney pointed out that this isn't the only funding sought by the south Florida delegation. "This project, along with the $200 million for (Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan) projects incorporated into the FY2020 White House budget request, is great news for Southwest Florida’s ecology and economy," he said in an email.
In his statement, Mast pointed to the need to re-create the way water moved through the region before humans engineered it.
“Moving a much greater amount of water south — mimicking the natural water flow — is critically important for our environment, health, safety and economy,” wrote Mast. “This project will see huge benefits to restore the Everglades and prevent harmful discharges.”
The news was applauded by nonprofit environmental groups as well.
“The water crisis facing the Everglades is really two-fold,” Everglades Foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg wrote. “At the northern end of the Everglades, excess water flowing into Lake Okeechobee has forced massive discharges of algae-causing water into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers. Meanwhile, in the southern Everglades, the lack of fresh water impacts wildlife and destroys critical habitat. In Florida Bay, it is ruining the delicate saltwater balance, killing seagrass habitat needed to support world-class recreational fishing in the Florida Keys.”
In an April 29 letter to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, Eikenberg called the work “an essential and significant step in the restoration of America’s Everglades and returning the natural flow of fresh water to Everglades Natural Park.”
The 100-year old, nonpartisan National Parks Conservation Association, which has long partnered with other conservation groups, businesses and citizens to support Trail bridging efforts, also celebrated the news.
“The completion of the Tamiami Trail project will be a tremendous victory for Everglades restoration and the end result of 30 years of hard work by local communities and state and federal leaders,” wrote Cara Capp, Everglades Restoration Program Manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, in a statement. The project, she wrote, will enhance public safety and the economy through green jobs.