MARATHON — Retired truck driver Norm "Runaway Grandpa" Dille arrived at the old Seven Mile Bridge for his daily ritual. He walked about half a mile roundtrip before plunking down in a green plastic chair to gaze at nature's beauty and at Henry Flagler's century-old engineering marvel.
"I love it," the 71-year-old from Ohio said on a breezy morning last week. "I love the view, the colors, the story behind it with the railroads. And, when I was young, I used to bring my kids down here. I remember the old bridge before the new one was built."
Runaway Grandpa is among thousands of people who walk, jog, push strollers, bike, picnic, catch the sunrise, toast the sunset and watch for marine life on the world famous bridge, once called the Eighth Wonder of the World and now on the National Register of Historic Places.
How much longer can the bridge's main 2.2-mile section safely support people? Nobody knows. The steel and concrete bridge, completed exactly 100 years ago to link Marathon to the Lower Keys, is deteriorating in the harsh salt and sun environment. The main section — which goes to historic Pigeon Key, a tiny island that once served as the work camp for the Florida East Coast Railway — already is too unsafe for vehicles and fishermen who continuously lean on the fragile railing.
Last summer, a nonprofit community group called "Friends of Old Seven" was formed to try to rescue the bridge. Leading the charge is Bernard Spinrad, a retired Marathon resident who formerly was Aruba's director of tourism. Friends of Old Seven is working with Monroe County, the city of Marathon and the bridge owners (the Florida Department of Transportation) to come up with a bold but practical renovation plan — and the $16 million to $20 million needed to fund it.
All sides agree it is in everybody's long-term interest to save the bridge — which is a major tourist attraction to the Middle Keys but has been "a bridge to nowhere" to FDOT since 1982, when the new Seven Mile Bridge was completed. "We've been trying to give up the old bridge's ownership for decades," said Gus Pego, FDOT's District 6 Secretary. "It's a recreational facility, not a transportation facility.…And what I tell commissioners and folks who ask me: `Given our limited budget, wouldn't you rather we maintain the new bridge?'?"
The unique old bridge has generated plenty of free publicity for the Middle Keys.
Kisha and Jen pedaled three-wheeled bikes along the bridge to win CBS' Amazing Race 18. Cuban migrants were found clinging to piling of the old bridge in 2006 that led to a controversial "wet foot/dry foot" case that sent them back to Cuba. And In 1994, the old bridge was famously blown up in "True Lies" with Jamie Lee Curtis and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Pego said the parking lot at the entrance to the north end is concrete now thanks to the "True Lies" crew, which needed a hard surface to launch the U.S. Marine Harriers.
Spinrad said the old Seven Mile Bridge has the potential to boost the local economy even more. He's been inspired by the cases of two other abandoned railroads that were brought to life by public and private partnerships: the High Line in New York City and Walkway Over the Hudson in upper New York.
"Both are roaring successes, and there are many other examples like that," Spinrad said. "We are not the lone wolf out there."
Longtime Monroe County Commissioner George Neugent said the county has always wanted to rescue the bridge, but other big-ticket items including waste water management and the central sewer system have taken priority.
But those major county projects are winding down, and money from a multibillion-dollar BP oil spill settlement may be available for the bridge project.
Under the Gulf Coast Restoration Act of 2012, 23 counties in Florida will be eligible for funding for tourism, economy revival and sustaining natural resources and ecosystems.
"Clearly, the bridge could fall under one of more umbrellas of shovel-ready projects that we could move forward on," Neugent said. "The act is out of Congress now and passed down to a consortium to divvy up. . Maybe for the old Seven Mile Bridge, the timing is right."
Pego said no FDOT funding is currently in place for the bridge's renovation, but the state agency would be willing to commit 50 percent of the costs with one big condition: The county, city or another entity would take over ownership of the bridge upon completion of the work. The new owners would become responsible for maintenance and liability, which could cost around $300,000 annually.
Renovating the bridge also would eliminate the need for ferry service to Pigeon Key, which now costs about $250,000 annually and is split among the county, city and FDOT.
Friends of Old Seven just held a bridge design contest for architecture graduate students at Florida International University. The county kicked in $5,000 of the $12,500 cost.
For the contest, called "Imagine 07," the students were told to let their imaginations run wild. And they did. They came up with an underwater restaurant, water slide, a ski-lift type people mover that would run under the bridge and "human fish tanks," where people could view marine life. Good luck getting permits for those endeavors in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
But they also came up with some more practical ideas, including a terraced park at the entrance to the north end and shade areas on top of the bridge.
Anna Drescher, 21, won the student contest with an idea for five areas on top of the bridge called "mile markers." Each would have different concepts and sponsors, including one about hydroelectricity at a point where two major currents meet.
"I learned the significance of lighthouses in the Keys and all my panels would light up and create luminance at night," she said.
"Anna Drescher's concept of lighting and the plazas also was very exciting," Spinrad said.
While some county commissioners criticized most of the designs for the impracticality, county senior director of engineering Kevin White said the project was worth the investment.
"This will generate way more than $5,000 worth of interest, publicity and start-up juice," he said. "If people see creative ways to use the bridge, it might attract private money or tourism money."
Spinrad would have loved to have held a major design contest for big time architectural firms. "But we would have needed a $100,000 pot for prize money," he said. "But we couldn't afford it. So we did the graduate students. First prize is $300, second is a little basket and third is a smaller basket."
For the past three months, Friends of Old Seven has set up a booth from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week at the north end of the bridge to garner support. They take donations for the bridge and for bridge souvenirs, as well as soliciting people to sign a petition to save the bridge.
Sergio Blengini and Margherita Bruno of Italy jogged and walked the length of the bridge's main section, passing Dille as he sat in his chair. They said they learned about the bridge on Lonely Planet. The bridge attracts international travels from all over the world, according to data collected by Friends of Old Seven.
But many people miss the entrance to the old Seven Mile Bridge, which is poorly marked on the right side of U.S. 1 just before the new Seven Mile Bridge. Several of the architecture students said they missed the entrance and had to drive the 14 miles roundtrip on the new Seven Mile Bridge.
Brad White, the "bridge effort manager" for Friends of Old Seven, said he sees many people make illegal and dangerous U-turns upon missing the entrance. "One time I saw a truck towing a big boat stop traffic and then back up," he said. "That was scary, but I guess they really wanted to see the old bridge."
Spinrad said his group also has been working on a practical design of their own that will make the old Seven Mile Bridge a world-class tourist attraction. It includes building plaza type spaces on the bridge for events such as art festivals or farmer's markets and building a fixed rail for "Henry the Trolley," which stopped running in 2008 when the state closed the bridge to all vehicle traffic. Private vehicle traffic was banned in 2002.
"The bridge is worth preserving," Sprinrad said. "And I don't think it will take a super human effort if we can get the political establishment behind it." AP-WF-08-28-12 1844GMT