KEY LARGO (CBS4) – Nearly seven years in the making, Monroe county dignitaries, politicians and state transportation officials gathered Wednesday morning to dedicate the new, and improved, “18-Mile Stretch which connects the mainland to the Florida Keys.

The $330 million project began in January, 2005. The new road features numerous safety, environmental and aesthetic enhancements for drivers on the northernmost segment of the Florida Keys Overseas Highway (U.S. 1).

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A concrete median barrier, painted Belize blue as recommended by marine life artist Wyland, stretches almost the entire length of the road and should drastically reduce the number of fatalities on the road.

“Number one is safety and we will be able to eliminate 10 to 14 critical accidents a year that ended in fatalities,” said Gus Pego, FDOT’s District 6 Secretary.

The project was designed so a temporary second northbound lane could be added to accommodate additional traffic in the event of a hurricane evacuation.

Environmental benefits feature almost 20 culverts and underpasses for animals such as crocodiles and Florida panthers to cross safely under the road. Elimination of a land causeway that once bisected Lake Surprise has restored natural water flow to Florida Bay. Outside shoulders and berms were built to prevent road pollutants from washing into Florida Bay.

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The project’s iconic element, a 1.25-mile-long, 65-foot-high Jewfish Creek Bridge completed in May 2008, has created a more impressive visual driving approach to the Florida Keys.

“It’s made for a more beautiful drive and one that’s more fun,” said Monroe County Mayor Heather Carruthers, who is also a member of the Keys tourism council. “You’re not worried anymore about being passed by overly aggressive drivers and you can arrive relaxed and in safety.”

Although the project required almost seven years of construction, the debate over the new road’s necessity and building parameters raged for almost 25 years. Environmentalists were concerned that original plans for a four-lane road would spur over-development in the Keys.

Eventually, the decision was made to settle on wide single northbound and southbound lanes with expansive shoulders for breakdowns and accidents.

Opened on March 29, 1938, the Overseas Highway was given the designation State Road 4A. When the Card Sound Bridge was destroyed by fire in 1944, the road was re-aligned into Key Largo by using the old-railroad right of way and it received the unofficial designation of State Road 5. This new segment which utilized the railroad right of way became known as the 18-Mile Stretch.

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