Environmental Groups Challenge FL Keys Road Project

Fri March 18, 2005 - Southeast Edition

MIAMI (AP) An environmental challenge to widening the highway connecting the Florida Keys and the mainland will go to trial March 21, days before the bulldozers are set to move in, a judge ruled Feb. 14.

After a decade of negotiations pitting driver safety against environmental concerns, the two sides couldn’t be farther apart about the future of an 18-mi. (29 km) stretch of U.S. 1 between Florida City and Key Largo. Slow-growing mangroves and open water creep up to the road’s shoulder, and part of the highway shoots through Everglades National Park.

The $270-million, three-year project would widen shoulders, replace a bridge and add a concrete divider to what is now a two-lane road with three-lane passing sections. Government goals include cutting down on head-on collisions and speeding up hurricane evacuations from the Keys. The narrower, longer Card Sound toll road is the only alternate for U.S. 1 traffic.

Justice Department attorney Pamela Tonglao told the judge that the proposal was “the very best scenario” worked out among federal and state agencies and the public. Revisions shrank the scope of what had been planned as a four-lane divided highway.

“This is an example of the process working exactly as it should,” Tonglao told U.S. District Judge James Lawrence King. “We feel all the agencies have followed the letter and spirit of the regulations.”

But the Sierra Club, Friends of the Everglades and the Florida Keys Citizen Coalition claim the effect on endangered species and the Everglades have been understated and seek the cancellation of federal permits issued to the state for construction scheduled to start April 5.

Environmental groups oppose the estimated 100-acre (40.5 ha) wetlands loss and worry about the potential for encouraging growth by speeding up the southbound trip from Miami’s suburbs to the Keys.

The judge suggested moving ahead to a trial deciding the road’s future once and for all, but attorneys on both sides asked for a preliminary ruling. King set aside a week to hear testimony from up to 10 witnesses. He promised to rule “in time for the state department to know what they’re doing about these contracts.”

State Transportation Department Attorney Dan Richardson warned that any significant delay would result in more traffic injuries and possibly deaths. But the judge noted bulldozing mangroves means a recovery time of 20 to 40 years.

“I have presided over trial after trial after trial when the government has urged me to stop developers from going into the mangroves,” King said. An injunction temporarily halting construction “would be a tremendous impact, but at least it’s only money. A great deal of money, but only money.”

The state issued a contract for the project last fall, subcontracts are being issued, employees are moving in for the work, rights of way have been bought for staging areas, and approximately $4 million to $5 million in environmental mitigation work already has been performed, Richardson said. Heavy equipment is set to arrive in early April.