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Miami Beach to spend up to $400 million to deal with flooding issues

Miami Beach, which sometimes floods from the bay even on a sunny day, is taking major steps to stay dry, with commissioners voting Wednesday to factor in higher tides and sea levels when planning for city projects.

The move is expected to double to $400  million the cost of keeping water out of Miami Beach’s streets.

The city still isn’t entirely sure how it will pay for the costly improvements, but hopes to tap into federal and state funds, grants and possibly borrow money against its utility accounts.

“There is a lot of money going into these resiliency issues, so we are hoping to tap into that,” City Manager Jimmy Morales said Wednesday evening.

Raising fees could also be an option to finance the approximate extra $200 million, he said.

The commission also voted unanimously to expedite the construction work along Alton Road, declaring the situation an emergency because of anticipated extreme high tides in October. With the declaration, the city can move more quickly to install three pump stations along Alton.

Additionally, city officials will talk to state officials about finishing their portion of the project in December, instead of next summer — even if it means lengthening the crews’ hours.

“We’re going to do this, tackle the immediate problem,” said Commissioner Jonah Wolfson.

With a largely new commission voted into office in November, the city has taken an urgent interest in stemming rising tides. Mayor Philip Levine immediately created a new commission committee to deal with flooding issues and appointed a task force of local residents. The new stormwater standards are a result of the work of these new groups.

Under the actions taken Wednesday by the commission, the city will:

•  Raise the standards for all city projects as it relates to stormwater planning.

A previous commission in 2012 passed a master plan to deal with stormwater issues in the city. The plan was both hailed as groundbreaking and bashed as not going far enough to address the Beach’s perennial flooding issues.

On Wednesday, the critics won.

“You’ve got to deal with the realities of this,” said Commissioner Michael Grieco.

Under the new measures, the city would consider peak tides of 2.1 feet and an additional seven inches of sea level rise, as projected by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The old plan considered only mean tide levels of 0.5 feet, according to a city memo New projects will now have to plan for a total of 2.7 feet of water.

The city also would add up to 40 pump stations — which is where the majority of funds will be spent. In addition, the city will spend money on valves with backflow preventers so water doesn’t come in from the bay, along with larger and more pipes.

Currently, the city’s pumps rely on gravity to discharge water. But higher sea levels mean the ground is too saturated for water to move through it, Morales said. The result: Water backs up from the bay, coming through sewers in the South Beach neighborhoods around West Avenue, Sunset Harbor and North Bay Road.

“We have to forcefully move the water,” he said. “We’re preparing for the worst.”

But adding more stations might be problematic. Already, residents have fought City Hall after large, industrial-looking utilities were plunked in front of homes.

•  Declare an emergency ahead of expected extreme high tides — allowing city administrators to waive competitive bidding for a contractor to start work on three new pump stations. The stations, expected to cost $11.2 million, would be located on the west side of Alton Road, at Sixth, 10th and 14th Streets.

A state project already underway on Alton Road spurred the need for quick action on behalf of the city, according to Morales.

The problem is that the existing drainage system along Alton Road handles runoff water for both the state road and for other parts of the city. But the ongoing FDOT project separates the pipes used by the state and by the city, and it doesn’t allow the city to tap into the discharge system anymore.

Morales took into account the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predictions when asking commissioners to approve the emergency pump station work. NOAA is predicting October tides that are 1.2 feet above the mean, for a flooding elevation of 1.87 feet.

The city waived bidding to hire Bergeron Land Development for the job. Bergeron is the same company doing work on Alton Road for the state. A city memo notes that FDOT chose Bergeron though a public bidding process.

“To avoid problems and construction delays, the city believes that it would be in its best interest to use the same contractor selected by the FDOT procurement process,” according to a city memo.

•  Negotiate with the Florida Department of Transportation on extending the hours of their crews working on the state portion of the Alton Road project. Typically, construction work is limited to certain hours to avoid bothering residents with noise.

Public Works Director Eric Carpenter said the measure allows the city manager to negotiate extended hours with the state. It’s not yet known what those hours would be.

The state originally expected to complete construction on Alton Road in summer 2015. With the new hours, and other measures pushed by the city, Miami Beach officials say the project could wrap up by Dec. 31.

“It’s going to be a whole new, drier world,” said Scott Robins, a member of the newly created Mayor's Blue Ribbon Panel on Flood Mitigation.

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