Everglades bridge gets OK from federal judge

A Miami federal judge has cleared the path for a long-delayed plan for a new long bridge on the Tamiami Trail, an asphalt dam across the River of Grass for nearly 80 years.

U.S. District Judge Ursula Ungaro lifted an injunction she had issued in November when the Miccosukee Tribe contended that the Army Corps of Engineers hadn't properly studied alternatives to a planned $225 million, one-mile bridge.

Ungaro, in a 10-page order filed Wednesday, wrote that Congress had made it clear in recent months that it wanted work on the bridge to start immediately, by inserting a short clause in a massive spending bill to grant the Corps an extraordinary legal exemption for the project.

The clause, "notwithstanding any other provision of law," amounted to a congressional mandate that federal environmental laws need not apply to the project – an explicit exemption that she said courts had approved in only two previous cases. The clause also effectively removed the project from court jurisdiction, she ruled.

Environmentalists praised the decision, saying work crucial to restoring the Everglades had been pushed back too many times, for too many years. The road overhaul was originally approved by Congress two decades ago as part of a broader project to restore water flows to the Northeast Shark River Slough, the historic headwaters of Everglades National Park.

"This is a huge step in the right direction and we look forward to seeing the first shovel hit the ground in the months ahead," said Kirk Fordham, chief executive officer of the Everglades Foundation.

Miccosukee attorney Dexter Lehtinen called the ruling "very disappointing," and the legal exemption a betrayal of White House promises to remove politics from environmental and science decisions.

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