Old Seven Mile, Rowell’s Marina get more attention

When looking at quality-of-life projects like restoring the old Seven Mile Bridge or acquiring Rowell’s Marina for public use, keep costs in mind, Monroe County commissioners cautioned their administrator Wednesday.

Administrator Roman Gastesi will be allowed to talk with state officials and property owners to assess costs — but not commit any infrastructure sales-tax money, commissioners decided at their Marathon meeting.

A large contingent of Friends of Old Seven turned out to support the possibility of partnering with the Department of Transportation to split the cost of refurbishing the 2.2-mile stretch of the old Seven Mile to Pigeon Key. Due to structural problems, it’s been closed for years to fishing and autos.

The cost for upgrades has been estimated at $18 million but that does not include potential problems with bridge supports below the waterline.

“That is an iconic structure recognized the world over,” hotelier Pritam Singh said. “I think this project is critical to our future as a tourist destination.”

As for Rowell’s in Key Largo, Jim Saunders said the Key Largo community supports extending the 1-cent sales tax “so there could be some quality-of-life projects for residents.”

The former Rowell’s Marina provides access to Florida Bay and needed space for numerous festivals and civic events, he said.

Gastesi wanted to know if commissioners have a problem with him “investigating further” to see if the popular projects are financially practical.

Commissioner Danny Kolhage said that after paying loans on wastewater systems and other infrastructure projects, there may not be much money left from the tax.

“Where do we stand” with current project costs, Kolhage asked. “How are we going to fit this in?…. We have to get down to the reality of what we can afford.”

Commissioner David Rice said Gastesi should learn more about potential projects. “He’s not spending a nickel,” Rice said.

Commissioner Heather Carruthers and Kolhage both referred to an unreleased state engineering report on the old Seven Mile Bridge that suggests costly problems beyond the upper decking, which has been the only publicly identified problem, but details were not disclosed. Carruthers described the findings as “a little scary.”

In other items Wednesday:

  • The board approved new members for the local advisory panel to review projects that could be funded under the Restore Act that allocates some money from the BP Deepwater Horizon settlements.
  • Told lawyers representing Monroe County on Deepwater Horizon damages to file a lawsuit to retain standing in case of new spill-related environmental or economic damages that have yet to surface.
  • Grudgingly approved $235,972 from property taxes toward a lobby expansion at the Freeman Justice Center in Key West. Design problems have significantly increased the cost of renovations at the courthouse. “This is beyond frustrating. This thing goes on and on,” county Mayor George Neugent said.
  • Approved a tentative $1.7 million for the Human Services portion of the county budget that allocates funding to numerous local nonprofits. The amount could be hiked later if money is available, commissioners said.