Seven Mile Bridge in the Florida Keys

Davis Motor Sports, driven by Mark Gibbons, speeds under the Seven Mile Bridges in the Florida Keys on Sunday, May 17, 2009, during the Marathon Offshore Grand Prix in Marathon, Fla. (Bob Care, Florida Keys News Bureau / May 17, 2009)

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.