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3 days ago, 09/18/2014 at 6:34pm

Over the EvergladesFeds Commit $20 Billion to
Raise Highway 41 in Everglades

When engineers first constructed Highway 41 through the Everglades nearly a hundred years ago, environmental concerns were not on anyone's minds and no one understood or cared that they were actually creating a dam in the middle of the River of Grass and cutting off freshwater flows into Florida Bay. Now, efforts are being made to reverse some of that damage and restore natural water flow by raising sections of the road so that water and wildlife can cross beneath. A one-mile section just west of Miami has been completed, with plans for several more near it, and last week the Department of Transportation announced the award of a $20 million federal grant to fund construction of an additional 2.6 miles that will be added to the state's commitment of $90 million.

Highway 41, also known as the Tamiami Trail, consists of 264 miles of blacktop that extends from Tampa to Miami. Heralded as a 'feat of engineering' upon its completion in 1928, the road began coming under fire in the late 1990's as people realized that it blocks water flow and severs Shark Valley, prompting the Army Corps of Engineers to begin making plans to raise portions of it to restore the flow.

Florida Senior Senator Bill Nelson has made the issue a pet project, and has been lobbying hard in Washington to get the funding for it.

"This project not only benefits the motorists who use this road, it’s yet another important step in our overall efforts to restore the Everglades,” he said in a letter to the Secretary of Transportation, Anthony Foxx, in April. "The Tamiami Trail: Next Steps 2.6 mile bridge is an integral part of the Tamiami Trail Modifications for the Modified Water Delivers to Everglades National Park Project. The Tamiami Trail roadway has long been recognized as one of the primary barriers to the flow of water through the ecosystem. According to the National Research Council's "Progress toward Restoring the Everglades: the Third Biennial Review”, additional bridging of the Tamiami Trail is required to achieve significant ecological benefits because the bridge reestablishes historic flows into the most iconic and critical portions of these restorative efforts in Everglades National Park and Florida Bay.”

The letter goes on to cite other benefits of the project, including job creation and tourism.

While some environmentalists point out that raising the road will only fix part of the problem since all water flowing into the ENP must be cleansed of nutrient pollution first, others laud the project as being a good step forward.

"This is good news for the Everglades," said Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon Florida. "These federal highway funds will be matched to state highway funds to help build the next part of the Tamiami Trail bridges. The bridges are necessary to allow freshwater to flow into the Everglades and will improve both water supply and wildlife habitat."

Jennifer Hecker of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida agrees, adding that the raised sections will also help relieve a water buildup on the north side.

"With the water being blocked, it is stacking up on the north side of the road,” she said. "It's inundating tree islands that are very important for a multitude of different species. Also, keeping that water flowing south - replenishing our aquifers - is essential to protecting the water supply in South Florida.”

The grant from the Department of Transportation is part of the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) Discretionary Grant Program. Since 2009, Congress has dedicated more than $4.1 billion for six rounds of the program to fund projects that have a significant impact on the Nation, a region or a metropolitan area. 72 recipients and $600 million were selected for this year's TIGER, funding projects in 46 states and the District of Columbia. Overall, the Department received 797 eligible applications requesting $9 billion - an increase from the 585 applications received in 2013.

"As uncertainty about the future of long-term federal funding continues, this round of TIGER will be a shot in the arm for these innovative, job-creating and quality of life-enhancing projects,” said Secretary Foxx. "We're building bridges from Maine to Mississippi.”

Keri Hendry Weeg