Florida Sen. Nelson: Everglades restoration is bipartisan

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 22, 2011 

There’s more bipartisan support for restoring the Everglades than might be expected, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said Wednesday — especially given the politically charged atmosphere in Washington and Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s previous concerns about spending state money on projects.

Nelson, touting the bipartisan push behind some recent legislative victories, said he and others have pressed Scott repeatedly to emphasize the importance of the project for jobs and future water quality. The Democratic senator thanked the Republican governor for for a budget that restores some of the state’s share of funding for the complex, multi-year project.

“I think we’re on the way,” Nelson said.Nelson and U.S. Rep. Bill Young, R-St. Petersburg Beach, had been scheduled to talk to reporters about bipartisan backing for Everglades projects, particularly from Florida’s legislative delegation, but Young was unavailable because he was traveling. Young was largely responsible for language in a recently passed spending bill that authorizes the next phase of bridge construction over Tamiami Trail, Nelson said.

Construction is under way on the first phase of the Tamiami Trail project in Miami-Dade County. The project calls for raising parts of the highway above the wetlands, and eventually could restore the freshwater flow of the River of Grass to levels not seen in 80 years. Ultimately, the federal government would like to build 5.5 miles of bridges on Tamiami Trail. The four-year project would cost an estimated $324 million.

Nelson acknowledged that paying for the bridging will be challenging in the face of the fiscal realities Congress must address. But it’s a victory even to authorize such a large-scale project in tight budget times, Nelson said, and he hopes to build on the momentum.

“You have to go to steps two, three and four after you’ve done step one. And step one is now a reality,” he said.

Kirk Fordham, who heads the Everglades Foundation, said that the first step involved a broad coalition of people — not only Nelson and Young, but also U.S. Reps. Ander Crenshaw, R-Jacksonville, Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, and Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston. They rarely work together on political issues, Fordham said, but they do work together when it comes to the Everglades.

“This has been a pretty rough year for bipartisanship in Washington,” Fordham said. “The Everglades is really a shining star when it comes to an example in the policy arenas where we see continued bipartisan support for this significant ecosystem restoration effort. It’s nothing short of remarkable that the Everglades has scored such a big win.

”There’s also been a recent thaw in federal and state relations on the project. In October, federal agencies announced plans intended to speed up work to revive water flow to the Everglades. If approved by Congress, the plans could transform how large federal public works projects across the country are built. The change also is expected to cut the planning process for the next major restoration project in the central Everglades from six years to 18 months.

The move to speed up planning came on the heels of a pledge by Scott to deal with on-going legal battles with federal agencies over persistent water pollution problems in the Everglades.

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