ON THE TAMIAMI TRAIL — For nearly a century, the flow of the Everglades has been blocked by a bumpy, two-lane road. The Tamiami Trail, built in the 1920s to allow Model A Fords to travel across the Everglades, effectively dammed the River of Grass, starving what would become a national park and altering its flora and fauna.
Now, after two decades of struggling to get approval and funding, the road is rising to let the river run free. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is raising a mile of the Tamiami Trail so water can once again flow into Everglades National Park.
Last week Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, flanked by a squad of other federal officials, showed off the progress on the project to a group of journalists. The officials all donned hard hats and posed for pictures at the construction site, boasting about how the $95 million project first approved by Congress in 1989 would be completed by December 2013.
There's only one problem. Raising just a single mile of the highway "is not sufficient," said Stu Appelbaum, who's in charge of planning for the corps' Everglades restoration work. Saving the River of Grass requires more flow than what that one segment would allow.
"We'll put as much flow as we can through that opening," Appelbaum said. "But obviously more is better."
Last year the Interior Department, which oversees national parks, unveiled plans for raising another 5.5 miles of the highway. The plan called for using four different bridges, ranging in length from a third of a mile to 2.6 miles, to be built over four years at an estimated cost of $324 million.
"Now we need to find funding sources," said Salazar, speculating the cost may rise to $400 million. "We're at a crossroads."
He acknowledged that getting a Congress focused on reducing the federal deficit to put up so much money for bridges in Florida might be a tough sell. When a reporter asked Salazar if building the next set of bridges would take another 20 years, he said, "I certainly hope not."
Pinellas County's U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young has inserted language authorizing the next bridge project into a House bill, but so far there's nothing in the Senate, said Kirk Fordham, executive director of the Everglades Foundation. As for funding, he said, "my sense of it is that it will take at least another couple of years."
The Everglades once flowed without interruption from the region just south of Orlando through Lake Okeechobee and across the sawgrass marshes to Florida Bay. Then, in the early 1920s, big dredges arrived to scoop out the muck and build a 275-mile highway straight as a ruler across the marsh. Because it would link Tampa and Miami, the road that opened in 1928 was dubbed "Tamiami."
The places that had been dug up became flood-control canals. Where the dredges dumped the spoil became the roadbed. In 1923, Florida's chief Everglades drainage engineer sent a letter to sugar company employee Ernest "Cap" Graham — father of future governor and U.S. senator Bob Graham — acknowledging that the "road acts as a continuous dam across the Everglades preventing the natural flow of water" into a waterway called Shark River Slough.
Although there are 19 culverts under the Tamiami Trail, they can't match the original flow, explained Everglades National Park superintendent Dan Kimball. Before the road, the peak flow was 4,000 cubic feet of water per second meandering across a 10-mile-wide stretch. The culverts allow less than half that much, and it shoots through as if being sprayed out of a garden hose.
The loss of so much flow wreaked havoc on the Everglades. Marshy plants died off and wading birds flew away. The population of wading birds within the Everglades has decreased between 70 and 90 percent since the 1930s.
Scientists knew how to fix this problem, but even after Congress authorized raising the road it took two decades of studies, politics and legal battles. The Sierra Club pushed for an 11-mile elevated ''skyway,'' but federal officials dismissed the $1.6 billion proposal as far too expensive to be practical.
Instead they settled on the one-mile bridge, and also raising the water level in the adjacent L-29 canal so more water would flow through that opening but still prevent it from swamping the rest of the highway. Col. Al Pantano, the corps' commander in Florida, hailed the 2009 groundbreaking as "a major milestone along the journey to restore America's Everglades."
Without more millions, though, that milestone might mark the end of the restoration road. U.S. Rep. David Rivera, R-Miami, said he hopes to persuade Congress to come up with the cash for the next set of bridges just by telling them it's the only way to save the Everglades.
"My colleagues understand that protecting the Everglades is a national issue," Rivera said. "Everyone knows its importance to the world."
The one thing the bridge project has going for it in Congress is that it enjoys bipartisan support, said Fordham, a former congressional aide. But what everyone should remember, he said, is that "Everglades restoration isn't for short-term thinkers. You have to have patience and persistence."
Craig Pittman can be reached at email@example.com