With care, road builders respect Glades

Wildlife needs often trump construction of skyway

Workers building the original Tamiami Trail blasted their way across the Everglades with 2.6 million pounds of dynamite, hauled by ox-drawn wagons, which sometimes became so mired in Everglades muck that the men had to rescue the oxen.

Conditions aren’t as tough today as they were in 1913 when construction began. But work is now underway on the first mile of an elevated “skyway” replacing part of the Tampa-to-Miami road. And today’s workers have their own wilderness issues:

They brake for boa constrictors. And endangered wood storks. And Everglade kites.

Fierce Glades thunderstorms can shut down the work. So can smoke from wildfires. Alligators? They’re the least of it.

“Building a bridge is always an experience,” says Nestor Rivera, an engineer and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project manager on the skyway job, “but this is really something different.”

At Congress’ orders and after decades of pleading and pressure from environmentalists, the Corps started building the $113 million mile-long causeway in 2009 in hope of restoring a more natural water flow to the River of Grass. Ever since it was finished in1926, the Trail has acted like a dam, blocking the Shark River’s flow into Everglades National Park, with dire consequences for wading birds and other wildlife.

The one-mile skyway going up east of the park’s Shark Valley entrance should undo some of the damage, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told a tour group visiting the site from the Society of Environmental Journalists’ Miami conference on Thursday. Congress has approved another five-mile stretch of skyway, but hasn’t allocated money to build it.

A harsh “scree-scree, scree-scree” interrupted Salazar’s talk. It was the call of an endangered Everglade snail kite, said Steve Davis, an ecologist with the Everglades Foundation. Even in its damaged state the northeast Shark River is a major nesting area for the extremely rare kites, and for endangered wood storks.

When wood storks are nesting, skyway construction is supposed to stop. They do, and it does. Last winter work stopped for nearly four months while the storks raised their young, Rivera said.

The work is scheduled for completion in December 2013, and it’s running on time, Rivera said. Bridge pilings are in place and topped with concrete caps. Crews are using two large cranes to hoist 80-foot steel and concrete I-beams into place between the caps, where they will support the causeway deck.

Workers have twice found boa constrictors on the crane platforms. “We called in ENP (Everglades National Park) personnel and they dealt with them,” Rivera said. Boa constrictors are a “noxious” non-native species infesting the Glades, so the Park biologists probably didn’t relocate the snakes to nice new dens.

The project employs about 140 people. From platforms atop the pilings, the workers have a view of miles and miles of sawgrass prairie. The only sights other than grass, trees and wildlife are a crane and two giant sheds far to the southeast  – a rock-mining operation on Krome Avenue.

A few alligators usually monitor the workers’ progress, half-submerged in the water below. “They’re more inquisitive than anything else,” said Mike O’Bryan, safety manager for Kiewitt Infrastructure Co., the skyway contractor. “Just waiting for someone to drop them a sandwich.”

When the skyway is built, the crew will break up the old road surface and haul the rubble away, some of it to be stockpiled for future projects, some to landfills. They’ll use heavy machinery, Rivera said, not dynamite or oxen. The earth underneath will be scraped into the roadside canal – the same place it came from nearly 100 years ago.

Bridge building is considered a high-status assignment among engineers, it seems.

Why? “Well, slinging steel and concrete, you know,” O’Bryan said, as if no further explanation is needed. “And 20 years from now you can bring your family out here and say, ‘I built this.’ ”

The skyway job is especially prestigious, Rivera said. “It’s going to be here a long time, but also it’s part of the restoration process. This is something that everybody wants to be involved with.”

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