EVERGLADES NATIONAL PARK, Fla. – After 24 years of planning, wrangling, and building, a big, red ribbon marked the pending opening of the 1.1 mile Tamiami Trail Bridge in the Everglades.
The elevated stretch of bridge will allow the natural flow of water from north to south in Everglades National Park, considered a key step to Everglades restoration, restoring the movement that Tamiami Trail has impeded since its paving in 1928.
"Even if you can care less about the recreation of natural wildlife, this is one of the greatest tourist attractions in South Florida," said Julie Hill-Gabriel of Audubon Florida. "This is our water supply. We need water flow to recharge the aquifer, and that is why this is important to everyone, not just the animals and wildlife."
PHOTOS: Tamiami Trail Bridge
The $81 million bridge, adjacent to the northern boundary of Everglades National Park, is part of the largest construction project in the history of the National Park Service. It will increase water flow by 92 percent over current levels to Northeast Shark River Slough and rehydrate and restore the 104,000-acre east Everglades portion of Everglades National Park, which Congress added to the park in 1989, all the way down to Florida Bay.
Raising the trail to 14-feet is the first step and a key step to Everglades restoration, as it allows the replenishment of the swath of glades left dry, its wildlife dying, by the ribbon of asphalt that is Tamiami Trail.
What started as an idea for an 11-mile skyway was scaled back when the Army Corps of Engineers deemed the costs too high. The project had to overcome several roadblocks over the decades.
"One is it got very expensive, two there were a number of lawsuits, different changes in the design, and when you put that together all of a sudden, you know, 24 years has slipped by," said Dan Kimball, superintendent of Everglades National Park. "This is a great day for Everglades National Park and all the staff and partners who have worked tirelessly for the past 24 years to make Mod Waters a reality."
Since the decision to raise the portion of bridge, costs of the entire project have risen from $77 million to $417 million for planning, design, construction and flood mitigation to the 8-1/2 square mile neighborhood that lies south of the bridge, according to Kimball.
Roy Sonenshein, a hydrologist with the National Park Service, described the original free flow of water from Lake Okeechobee to Florida Bay.
"Restoring the natural flow is a start," said Sonenshein. "Nature can heal itself, but it takes time. You have to give nature a chance to heal."
There are more bridges to come, already designed, but not yet funded.
"One one of the possibilities is the money that's going to come in from the BP Oil spill into Florida," said U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who attended the bridge's opening ceremony and ribbon cutting. "My own hope is that some of that money can be used for Everglades Restoration projects."
"Today marks a critical milestone for the Tamiami Trail Modifications Project," Secretary of the Army Jo-Ellen Darcy said. "But, there is still more to do. With the support of the administration, the state of Florida and our partnering agencies, we will continue our work to restore this American treasure."
"This is great news for Florida and the Everglades. This project is a perfect example of how we can grow economic opportunities for Florida families while enhancing our state's natural habitats," said Florida Gov. Rick Scott.
"The success of our partnership to complete Mod Waters will provide a foundation for other restoration projects as we address the need to improve the quantity, quality, timing and distribution of the water that makes the Everglades a unique ecosystem," said National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis.
The bridge will open to drivers in a few weeks. The project began in 1989 when Congress passed the Everglades Expansion and Protection Act.
READ: Obama administration's "Restoring America's Everglades" report |