By Kevin Wadlow, KeysInfoNet.com
Four historic fishing bridges in the Lower Keys suddenly closed to public access due to "major structural deficiencies."
Both fishing bridges from Ohio Key, site of the Sunshine Key RV Resort, were among the aging spans closed.
"We hate to close fishing bridges that are so popular with anglers," Department of Environment Protection Secretary Herschel T. Vinyard Jr. said in a prepared statement. "The safety of our park and trail visitors, however, has to come first."
The U.S. 1 traffic bridges at the same locations are not affected.
The closure affects four bridges built as part of the Florida East Coast Railway a century ago that are now considered part of the Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail.
Closed indefinitely are the fishing and hiking piers at:
-- Little Duck Key-Missouri Historic Bridge, mile marker 39.5.
-- Ohio-Missouri Historic Bridge, mile marker 39.
-- Ohio-Bahia Honda Historic Bridge, mile marker 38.5.
-- Lower Sugarloaf Channel Bridge, mile marker 15.8.
"That's not good news. Those are very popular bridges" to fish, said James Millsaps, owner of Jig's Bait and Tackle on Big Pine Key. "I send people there every day."
A December structural survey of the old bridges conducted by the state Department of Transportation "found major structural deficiencies," said DEP spokeswoman Mara Burger.
"DOT recommended immediate closure of the four bridges," she said.
After a meeting Wednesday with Monroe County and DEP officials, the closure notice was issued.
"It's serious, based on the photographs we saw," Monroe County Commissioner George Neugent said Friday.
Support beams holding up the bridge deck "have deteriorated to the point where it's clearly unsafe for anyone to be out there," Neugent said. "It's basically the same thing that happened at the Old Seven Mile Bridge."
Initial repair costs for the four bridges were estimated at $15 million, Neugent said. "And nobody has that in their budget."
"The department recognizes that [the] Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail is the pathway to Paradise, and in no way do we want to diminish access to this beautiful area," Burger said. "However, safety is our priority."
Five years ago, three of the now-closed spans were blocked for concrete repairs, resurfacing and other improvements as part of the hiking and bicycling trail.
"This is especially discouraging since we all do so much to encourage visitors to come and participate in all the fantastic things the Lower Keys have to offer," said Steve Miller, president of the Lower Keys Chamber of Commerce. "Once you start talking about structural integrity, it's tough to argue."