Vice President Joe Biden took his first airboat ride on Monday, touring the Everglades while touting the environmental and economic benefits of restoration projects helped by federal stimulus money.
The brief trip into the sawgrass and tree islands of Everglades National Park took Biden past a mile-long bridge project west of Miami that's raising up a section of the Tamiami Trail, a cross-Everglades highway that has acted as a dam blocking the flow of water through the park.
The bridge project was approved in 2000 but construction sped up, after years of planning and legal challenges, with the help of federal stimulus money under the Obama administration, said Bob Johnson, the park's natural resources director.
The project is intended to restore the natural flow of water.
Obama administration officials said they plan to expand the bridge along 5.5 more miles of the highway.
"This bridge was in the works for years, but I'm glad we finally broke ground because it's a critical step in restoring a lifeline to the Everglades. It's going to bring back a natural water flow to 300,000 acres of incredible wetlands," Biden said at a news conference in the park after his tour.
"I promise you, we're committed to working with Congress to find the resources to get the whole 6.5 miles done," he added.
Republican National Committee spokesman Matt Connelly called Biden's visit to South Florida a "poor attempt to divert attention away from President (Barack) Obama's plans to increase taxes, increase spending, and grow the size of government."
Biden brought his granddaughter along for the airboat tour operated by Everglades Safari Park.
Biden was joined by two Florida Democrats, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings.
The motor's roar cut through the silence just a mile south of the Tamiami Trail, sending wading birds into flight as the airboat glided across the murky water of the Shark River Slough.
Biden later said it was his first airboat ride.
The area was among 109,000 acres added to the park in 1989, and it has long suffered from a lack of water due to various water-control structures, levees and the highway, Johnson said.
The lack of water has disrupted habitat for alligators, fish, turtles and wading birds, Johnson said.
"The vice president got to see the river of grass. He got to see those alligators. He didn't get to see the Burmese pythons, which we are desperately trying to get rid of," Nelson said after the tour.
Biden said the Everglades are vital to Florida's agriculture, drinking water supplies and tourism industry, which welcomed nearly 1 million visitors to the park last year.