It’s iconic versus plain-Jane in choice for new I-395 bridge in downtown Miami

Since 2009, state transportation engineers have been working with civic leaders and residents in downtown Miami and Overtown to develop a long-promised, soaring “signature’’ bridge to replace the unsightly, obsolete Interstate 395 overpass, which has for decades cast an oppressive shadow over the area.

But even as a citizens’ committee picked a design for a dramatic suspension bridge dubbed the Wishbone Arch last month, Florida Department of Transportation consultants sprung what participants say was an unpleasant surprise: a less-expensive design for a plain-Jane “segmental box’’ bridge that the state also wants to consider.

FDOT District Secretary Gus Pego stresses that no decision has been made and that the agency has yet to identify funding to build any of the alternatives. Pego said he wants the public to think about the segmental box option because it would drop the price tag for the new highway by about $114 million, from the $673 million estimated cost of the version with the Wishbone bridge.

The last-minute introduction of the stripped-down concrete bridge, however, has provoked a flurry of unfavorable reviews from the Downtown Development Authority, Miami-Dade County officials and former Miami Mayor Manny Diaz. During his administration, Diaz won agreement from FDOT to erect a new super-elevated bridge that would undo some of the economic and aesthetic damage inflicted on Overtown and Biscayne Boulevard from the current span’s construction in the 1960s.

“A storm is brewing over this issue,’’ Miami-Dade Commissioner Dennis Moss warned during a recent meeting of the Metropolitan Planning Organization board after Pego, citing a conflict, canceled an appearance to explain what was going on. “That bridge has to be iconic. It has to have a ‘wow’ factor.’’

Added MPO vice chairwoman Maritza Gutierrez: “He [Pego] understands the gravity of the issue and he is prepared for the rainstorm. But I don’t know if he realizes it might be a hurricane.’’

The replacement of the I-395 span, which FDOT says is structurally and functionally deficient, has been seen as a critical piece in efforts to transform its once-depressed surroundings — which now include new condo towers, the Arsht Center and the arts and science museums under construction in nearby Bicentennial Park — into a cohesive arts, cultural and entertainment center. A distinctive bridge, supporters say, would become a symbol of the city’s resurgence.

Pego defended the vanilla-bridge scheme, calling it “a good-looking segmental bridge’’ similar to the nearby Port of Miami bridge that’s illuminated in purple light after dark. Unlike the Wishbone Arch, which would have no columns for most of its 600-foot length, the 300-foot-long segmental box version would be supported by piers.

“I want to build a signature bridge, don’t get me wrong,’’ Pego said in an interview. “But I want to make sure people realize what the difference in cost is. My thought process is, ‘Why is this being thrown off the table?’ What I’m trying to do is, let’s get the dialogue going on how we can afford the project.’’

The 1.2-mile I-395 span, which connects Interstate 95 to the MacArthur Causeway bridge along a series of elevated bridges and embankments, has been considered a source of blight virtually from its construction. It split the mostly black Overtown historic district, forced the relocation of thousands of residents, and established a physical and psychological barrier between downtown Miami and neighborhoods to its north. During the 1990s, areas under the I-395 overpasses in Overtown became homeless encampments.

FDOT first identified a need to redo the span in 1992, when an analysis found numerous design, safety and capacity flaws. But the federal highway administration halted FDOT’s study for a replacement in 1996 because the agency’s approach — to replace the roadway with a similar functional design — did nothing to remedy the social and urban-design issues associated with the original.

Advocates and the Diaz administration first pushed for a tunnel or a new 395 sunk below street level to re-connect downtown with Overtown and the Omni districts. When that proved unfeasible for financial and engineering reasons, they agreed to FDOT’s idea for a distinctive, super-elevated span.

That scheme would also allow some blocked avenues to the west of Biscayne Boulevard to be reopened while freeing up substantial amounts of land for creation of parks, pedestrian connections and even new development.

The existing I-395 would be demolished entirely and a new highway, higher off the ground than the present version and with fewer support elements to obstruct through streets at ground level, would be built just to its north.

Both the Wishbone Arch and the segmental box versions would include those improvements, Pego said. The principal difference would be the type of bridge at the eastern end of the highway over Biscayne Boulevard flanking the Arsht. The roadbed of the new Boulevard bridge would be 25 feet high at its tallest point, some 10 feet higher than the existing span.

FDOT created an advisory group, which included business leaders, Overtown residents, city planners and Arsht Center representatives, to help select a design and a plan for adequate traffic circulation on surrounding streets. The agency held more than 75 community meetings to hammer out a broad consensus. Its engineering-design consultants, internationally known T.Y. Lin, developed 15 “signature” bridge designs, which the committee narrowed down to three.

On Jan. 23, the group picked the Wishbone Arch design. When the consultants, who said they were acting on FDOT’s instructions, then also presented two segmental box options, one topped with a “Lotus Flower” decorative sculptural element, the committee unanimously rejected both.

What’s unclear is what comes next. FDOT in the past has said 395 would not be replaced until 2020 at the earliest. Typically, once FDOT has settled on a design, it puts a project on a 10-year list in line for funding.

But substantial new development in the area, plus still undefined plans by a Malaysian casino operator for a large resort on the site of The Miami Herald’s building, have generated pressure to speed up the roadway’s replacement.

Work is now underway on 395 to improve safety and traffic flow in preparation for the opening of the new PortMiami tunnel in 2014. FDOT has already started acquiring properties flanking the existing roadway.

Pego acknowledges the agency has no money to build anything right now, but argues that presenting a lower-cost alternative could help speed up replacement.

But if FDOT has no money for either version of the bridge, Diaz questioned why the agency would be pushing the segmental box bridge now.

“This is something for the next hundred years,’’ said Diaz, a member of the Arsht Center’s Town Square Development offshoot, which advocates for compatible development around the performing arts center . “And I think we deserve what we agreed to, what the community supported after innumerable public hearings. When you look at the spectacular potential of this district in the city, it’s just incredible.

“This is the picture that everyone will see of Miami. It should be something special.’’

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