The contentious and long-gestating project to replace the obsolete Interstate 395 span, which has cast a blighting shadow over downtown Miami and Overtown for decades, is finally on the verge of happening — but it’s still unclear precisely what will get built.
The Florida Department of Transportation is ready to go out to bid on a people-pleasing conceptual design that calls for replacing the existing 1.4-mile-long highway, which connects Interstate 95 with the McArthur Causeway, with a series of streamlined spans elevated over park-like, light-filled landscapes and culminating in a dramatically arching “signature bridge” structure over Biscayne Boulevard.
That concept, developed after scores of public meetings and a lawsuit by elected Miami officials against FDOT, would reclaim valuable urban land for public use while opening up and reconnecting some of the Overtown streets obliterated by massive embankments and forbidding overpasses when the span was built through the historic black neighborhood in the 1960s.
The key word, though, is “conceptual.” FDOT is seeking a contractor to both design and build the project, meaning the winner would still have to develop a workable blueprint within the $600 million budget, and the agency says there’s no guarantee it would exactly mirror the FDOT concept.
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$600 million budget for new roadway
But FDOT and its consultants say the agency is committed to what one engineer called “context-sensitive design.” Beth Steimle, an engineer with FDOT consultant T.Y. Lin International, said the agency had gone to unusual lengths to develop the template for the design-build team to follow. The competition will hinge not just on proficiency in engineering the new roadway but also in developing appealing designs for the boulevard bridge as well as at street level, FDOT said.
“This is not a typical FDOT project,” Steimle said during a public presentation Tuesday at Miami-Dade College’s downtown Wolfson Campus. “Aesthetics is a big part of the project.”
Aesthetics is why Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado and Commissioner Marc Sarnoff sued FDOT when its top district official, Gus Pego, appeared to retreat from a long-standing pledge to replace the Biscayne Boulevard bridge — a low, dark overpass that critics say acts like a barrier that splits the city’s burgeoning cultural district and discourages pedestrian traffic — with a higher bridge suspended on cables from a tower shaped like a wishbone or, in an alternate version, resembling a flowering lotus.
Pego, who said the state could afford only a plain-vanilla bridge, changed his mind again. FDOT settled with the city officials, reinstating the two alternative signature concepts. The settlement also established an oversight committee made up of city and county officials and a representative from the adjacent Arsht Center for the Performing Arts to ensure the agency keeps its promises.
There’s a little bit of more clearance under it, but it’s still an expressway overpass.
Miami-Dade Commissioner Xavier Suarez
Some officials remain wary. After FDOT’s brief powerpoint presentation on Tuesday, Miami-Dade Commissioner Audrey Edmondson said she wants to ensure the neighborhood gets equal treatment in terms of quality of landscaping and design with the Biscayne Boulevard block, and that the agency follows through on plans to reconnect long-closed Northwest Second Avenue and improve access to and from Overtown, which she represents.
“I want to make sure there is connectivity in all areas,” Edmondson said.
Some are unconvinced that FDOT’s blueprint is the best option for reconnecting and beautifying the area, though. Miami-Dade Commissioner Xavier Suarez, a former Miami mayor, has been fruitlessly pushing a costlier alternative that would bury either the 395 overpass — an option former Miami Mayor Manny Diaz supported — or a portion of Biscayne Boulevard, or both. He said that would create significant open space connecting Museum Park, the Arsht, Overtown and new condo towers rising along the west side of the boulevard.
Of the signature bridge, Suarez said: “There’s a little bit of more clearance under it, but it’s still an expressway overpass.”
Three weeks ago, former Miami Mayor and Miami-Dade commissioner Maurice Ferre released what he termed “a vehement protest” in a sharply critical letter to Pego. Ferre’s letter notes that the agency’s plan would maintain the existing massive earthern embankment at the edge of Biscayne Bay, separating Museum Park and its two new museum buildings from the old Miami Herald property to the north now owned by a casino-resort conglomerate, and frustrating longstanding goals of connecting the new park baywalk northwards.
Ferre, now a state transportation commissioner and a member of the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority board, concedes the current FDOT plan is “1,000 times better” than the present span, but called the bayside embankment “an unsightly monstrosity.”
FDOT officials say both proposals would be impractical from engineering and fiscal standpoints. Removing the embankment Ferre criticizes, for instance, would require not just vaulting the 395 highway over the existing Metromover line, but also rebuilding part of the causeway bridge, FDOT project manager Raul Quintela said. Ferre said Friday that the Metromover could be moved slightly instead, and FDOT could fund the embankment elimination by getting rid of the signature bridge structure, which he called purely decorative. He added he will continue pushing for at least a pedestrian aperture in the embankment.
The agency hopes to have a contract signed with the winning bidder in a year, then begin construction in 2017 on a new 395 that would be split into two separate spans going east and west. One new span would be built just to the north of the existing roadway, which would remain open until that one’s done. Then the old road would be demolished, with traffic shifted to the new span, while construction proceeds on the second new westbound span. When finished the new roadway will provide three through lanes in each direction, compared to just one now, and markedly improve safety, FDOT said.
Construction is expected to take five years and will coincide with a separate MDX project to rebuild the I-95 interchange with 395.