It was telling that the man almost power-walking up the north end of the State Road 100 pedestrian bridge Tuesday afternoon, before the ceremonial opening of Flagler County’s newest functional monument to its trail system represented not Palm Coast, Flagler Beach or the county, but Bunnell. He was walking as if to connect the cities and the county.
“I am a part of Flagler County, and basically I want to celebrate our pedestrian walkways, anywhere they are, and I’m an avid user of them,” Bunnell City Manager Alvin Jackson, who walks some 18,000 steps a day, said. He had just walked all the way from the Badcock shopping center in Flagler Beach. “I really appreciate this bridge and the walking trails in Palm Coast and in Flagler, and I’ve also ridden several times to Bunnell because basically the trail leads all the way to U.S. 1, and U.S. 1 has a trail.”
Palm Coast Mayor David Alfin sees the bridge as the most “inspiring” connector, as he described it, between the city on the north side of 100 and the county on the south side. “I think this energizes the TPO in particular, of which I’m on the executive board,” he said, referring to the Transportation Planning Organization instrumental in the trail system, “to hurry up the completion of the trails that connect to either end.”
The bridge connects to a new and rather ravishing 1.8-mile trail through Graham Swamp to the north, where three boardwalks at times give the walker and biker the impression of gliding over wetlands and ambling Avatar-like through trees. But its southern end for now remains a bridge to nowhere, looping back to the sidewalk on 100. The county got Transportation Department funding to design what will become the immense Bulow Park to the south, but it’ll be a while before the trail through the park completes the bridge’s path.
Tuesday’s ceremonial opening of the bridge, however, launched with an inaugural run of the Flagler Palm Coast High School track team, was a celebration of a work five years and $12.3 million in the making–a lot more than what began as a $7.5 million plan five years ago, when the late Charlie Ericksen–the only avid biker in the bunch–was the lone vote against the project, which he thought extravagant. “Just because we’ve got the apple dangling in front of [us] you don’t have to take a bite out of it,” Ericksen said at the time, referring to the source of the money: a grant from the state Department of Transportation. He was also hesitant about the scanty plans at the time. He eventually came around.
Once the bridge’s A-frame went up, intended to echo the A-frame at the Flagler Beach pier, the glare and mass of its stainless steel became grist for ridicule and endless memes on the web until the county decided to douse the steel in a chemical agent–and a rather toxic one to plants–that accelerated the steel’s rust. It worked, if perhaps not with the intended aesthetic effect. The worn and somewhat shabby-looking steel could be mistaken for recycled material from an old bridge in Pittsburgh.
On the other hand, as Flagler Beach Commissioner Rick Belhumeur saw it, “The bridge enclosure looks totally different from the walkway than it does from the road,” he said. “They did a good job making the steel look more like wood so they captured the appearance of the pier A-frame better than I imagined. It certainly appears to be built well and should be around for generations.”
The bridge’s ample interior, with thickets of green at either end, silver railings all along and the enveloping mesh of steel over 230 feet of the bridge’s span creates the desired sense of safe suspension between barreling traffic below and open sky above. It’s not a bad place to linger. At night the effect is amplified by ground lights.
The county had a sense of humor about the ridicule, too. It owned it, turning the tamer, kinder memes–Pee-Wee Herman at the bridge, Elvis at the bridge, Indiana Jones at the bridge, Shrek at the bridge, the bridge turned pickleball court–into a collage that was displayed at the foot of the bridge for all visitors to see, including the one of Buzz Lightyear telling Woody as they gaze skyward from the foot of the bridge, “Complainers, complainers everywhere.”
“This is a bridge that will be enjoyed by generations,” County Commission Chairman Greg Hansen said, choking up at the end of his remarks to a few dozen people who had gathered for the ribbon-cutting on the bridge in mid-afternoon Tuesday. He had enumerated the bridge’s often-repeated stats buttressing its creation–its 14-foot width, its 55 LED lights on the paths at either end (though the lights don;t extent up the path to Lehigh Trail), the 4,642 feet of handrails, and so on.
The people who had a hand or a few hundred hands in the project also spoke. But there was also a gaping void. The one person who should have been at the top of the billing, the one person whose project this was, and who shepherded it from conception to realization, the person who should have held the oversize scissors and cut the ribbon, was not there: Faith al-Khatib, the county engineer. She had secured the bridge’s funding, which otherwise would have been spent elsewhere in the state. She had championed it from start to completion. Then she disappeared.
Al-Khatib has been on a mysterious family leave for weeks, her fate all hush-hush in county halls, as with the reasons behind her departure. Her return, after almost two decades shoveling state and federal grants Flagler’s way, is very uncertain.
“This should be called Faith Bridge. It would not be a bad name for a bridge,” County Commissioner Dave Sullivan said, describing the bridge as al-Khatib’s “baby.”
“The big question now is what do we put on the side?” Sullivan said. “Eventually there’ll be something.”
Amy Lukasik, the county’s tourism director, was standing on a railing between a pair of large pictures that blended current reality with future concepts of what the bridge area will look like, when it is all built. Next in line is the Eco Discovery Center, a next-generation visitor center that will combine tourism magnetism with educational and environmental components, on county land just to the west of the bridge. “This will serve as the gateway not only to the county and all the recreational activities, but to the regional park and the bridge,” Lukasik said.
Lukasik also underscored a broader vision that has yet to sink into the local tourism culture, but that may be a major boost to Flagler County and all its cities beyond the beach: the luxurious trail system crisscrossing the entire county, and still growing, is becoming a draw to out of county residents, a major attraction in its own right that could buffer the unpredictable consequences of tropical storms, which severely impact tourism, or even the way high tides are now chronically reducing beach time for visitors. The trail system picks up the slack.
And for local residents, like Valerie and Ken Waine of Palm Coast, it’s one more amenity to make their own. “I’m very pleased to see it. I know that there was a lot of controversy over it,” Valerie Waine said, “But there’s always going to be somebody unhappy. They’ve resolved the problem with the glare.”
It’ll be an especially luxurious addition to the track team. “It provides opportunities for our kids to have safe places to run and train,” Coach Dave Halliday said. “We run on Lehigh trail, especially during track season and then we use the Graham Swamp Trail. We tried this one out already once. So I’m super excited for when they connect it down to Bulow, because we run down to Bulow as well. It provides a safe place for us to run free of the cars.”
Halliday thought the inaugural run by the team was appropriate symbolism of its immersion in the community and the connectivity the trail system it uses represents.