The new, nearly 2-mile trail through Graham Swamp south to State Road 100is as stunning as trails get in Flagler, a county already braided with lovely trails. A 1,600-foot elevated boardwalk make it seem as if you’re walking on water. Its 55 discreet lights are an invitation to nocturnal hikes.
For walkers and bikers along the 12-foot-wide path, the pleasure of the experience might just make it all the way across the new Graham Swamp Trail and Pedestrian Bridge that was completed this week, as long as they don’t think of the price: $12 million, almost double the $7.5 million cost projected in 2018, when the County Commission announced the plan, using grant money from the state Department of Transportation.
For drivers and pedestrians below the 650-foot bridge, along State Road 100, it’s a different story.
From that perspective, the new bridge is as hideous a structure as there is in Flagler County, as dissonant with its environment as a steel mill in a forest, as out of proportion with the road it straddles and the nature trails it links as an eighteen-wheeler on a golf course: the structure blocks rather than blends with the surrounding greenery, contradicting the very purpose of a trail designed to be in harmony with its environment.
It appears a well-intentioned but overeager attempt at architectural sampling ran away with the drawing board. The A-frame design by Kissinger Campo and Associates was clearly intended to echo the Flagler Beach pier’s A-frame. But the echo is lost in a din of visual noise and glare that screams hilarity at best, and at worst poses a risk to distracted and blinded traffic below.
It’s not an exaggeration. The county has been worried, and contacted the designer.
“KCA received notice via e-mail there were concerns associated with sunlight glare observed by drivers on SR 100 associated with the newly installed stainless-steel safety enclosure” of the bridge, H. Simon Hagedoorn, a design project manager with KCA, wrote Faith al-Khatib, the county engineer, in early June. “Peek glare was reported to occur between approximately 3:30 to 4:15 pm for drivers traveling in the eastbound direction of SR 100.”
Hagedoorn himself took drives back and forth on 100 at peak times (as did al-Khatib), noting that “The intensified glare described by others began to occur at 3:37 pm while traveling in the eastbound direction from Old Kings Road toward the bridge.” But, he added, “The consensus was that at no time during to the intensified glare period, vehicles traveling eastward toward and under the bridge were inhibited from seeing the roadway, lane striping, nearby pedestrians, the adjacent terrain and other vehicles traveling in front.”
Nevertheless, KCA agreed that the steel enclosure should be treated with chemicals “to lessen the intensity of sunlight.” Next month, al-Khatib will request from the County Commission a $65,000 allocation to conduct an inspection of the bridge and treat the steel with a patina that will accelerate its oxidation, thus darkening the steel. There are also discussions about adding lettering on either side of the steel, with perhaps Flagler Beach on one side and Palm Coast on the other.
England-Thims & Miller, or ETM, the well-regarded contractor that’s built numerous, important infrastructure projects around the county and its cities, and that built the bridge, describes the stainless-steel A-frame enclosing the pedestrian bridge as “adding aesthetic appeal while simultaneously fulfilling safety requirements.”
The safety part is unquestioned: the enclosure looks forbidding enough for a fly not to dare defy. Aesthetics is another story. The enclosure alternately looks like a giant triangle of light-emitting cellophane, a sun-reflecting strobe shaft that might need a trigger warning for seizure-prone motorists, an airborne prison that Jules Verne might have imagined in his darker moods, or a 1970s auto-train that never ends, while the frame’s anchor rods drop below the floor of the bridge like unsheathed weapons ready to spear drivers below.
So much for a stainless steel enclosure that was once proposed at $500,000 and ended up costing $1.1 million. It now makes State Road 100, hardly an aesthetic marvel, look elegant in comparison. But the enclosure is here to stay, as are the torrents of memes and derision it is radiating every day.
On Flagler Beach for Friends, the community Facebook page, the bridge’s enclosure has been a recurring gag, with one animation comparing it to a chicken-coop, another only yesterday having Elon Musk asking himself whether he should “buy this bridge and fix it,” which unleashed its own responses: “It wouldda been profitable and benefited the community in a positive way,” a commenter said. “Maybe they can use the heat collected from the glare to fuel his rockets? Use it as a star link satellite,” wrote another. “In a few years it will be a tourist attraction. Especially after all Vermonts covered bridges wash away,” a third wrote.
A few days ago yet another meme had an alien whose spaceship crashed into the bridge complain to a cop that the glare was at fault–that one just above John Morgan, the celebrated attorney, in a meme of his own: “If you were blinded by the bridge, you may be entitled to compensation.” And so on.
County and Flagler Beach officials have been hearing earfuls about the bridge even before the enclosure, though previously it used to be derided as a “bridge to nowhere.” It’s still that, at least in one direction: the rest of the trail down to Bulow Park is a $1.5 million Phase 2 project, again funded with state transportation dollars. A design firm was just selected, however, so work is under way. So users of the bridge will be crossing it south only to have to immediately loop around back to a new sidewalk built along State Road 100, to take them back to Old Kings Road, if that’s where they want to go.
If for now, it’s the glaring enclosure is catching all the attention (and the sun’s rays), some officials are beginning to see a silver lining. “It’s negative publicity but it’s helping us,” Al-Khatib said. She wasn’t kidding.
This morning at the Tourist Development Council meeting, Eric Cooley, chairman of the Flagler Beach City Commission and a member of the TDC, said the bridge’s bad publicity could be turned into a very good thing.
“I believe that the infamous A-frame bridge going over 100 is actually going to end up becoming a potential destination for tourism,” Cooley said. “There’s a lot of negative buzz, but it’s also turning into positive buzz. And everybody wants to see this. I’ve had folks just coming in and out of my business at the beach, going, where’s this bridge everybody’s talking about? They don’t know and they want to go see it. And I think it’s a neat opportunity for tourism to almost latch on to.” He said the county’s tourism could build a marketing angle around those very vibes, turning the bridge into another destination.
“I love that bridge,” Dave Sullivan, who chairs the TDC and sits on the County Commission, said. “The county is expanding whether you like it or not. Try to build something like that after the expansion. It won’t happen. So by having it there and close to the new visitor eco Center, which is going to be just to the west of it, will be good.” The county is planning to build its visitor center near the foot of the bridge. (See: “County Approves Spending Extra $500,000 for ‘Gem of a Site’ as Future Visitor Center on SR100.”
The bridge has drawn a lot of criticism over its cost. County officials stress that the state grant could not have been used for road or other bridge projects: it was designated specifically for trail-like projects.
Al-Khatib, the county engineer, drives to work using 100 every day. She’s shepherded the project’s evolution form the start, having secured the grant for it (among the tens of millions of grants she has secured). “It’s a stunning, it’s a unique bridge, they’ll love it, in no time they’ll get used to it,” she said of the bridge’s detractors.