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The firms behind the failed FIU bridge give up the fight to rebuild I-395. So now what?

The signature bridge in the winning proposal in the competition for the Interstate 395 reconstruction project, by the Archer Western-The de Moya Group, is meant to resemble a fountain.
The signature bridge in the winning proposal in the competition for the Interstate 395 reconstruction project, by the Archer Western-The de Moya Group, is meant to resemble a fountain. Archer Western-The de Moya Group

The controversial Interstate 395 reconstruction project, stalled for a year by litigation, is back on track after a consortium of builders and a former Miami commissioner dropped separate legal challenges alleging state transportation officials had botched the bid competition for the $800 million contract.

The consortium, led by international giants Fluor and Astaldi, included Munilla Construction Management and FIGG Bridge Group, the builder and design engineers, respectively, for the Florida International University pedestrian bridge that collapsed on March 15 while under construction. The bridge catastrophe, which claimed six lives, has put MCM and FIGG under a microscope as the National Transportation Safety Board investigates.

The Fluor-Astaldi-MCM consortium, or FAM, filed a bid protest last May after the Florida Department of Transportation picked a competing proposal by a team led by contractors Archer Western and The de Moya Group to replace the obsolete, mile-long I-395 expressway. The new elevated highway that would replace the old span includes a "signature" bridge over Biscayne Boulevard that's meant to help advance the area's ongoing urban renaissance.

But FAM withdrew its challenge last month after receiving an unfavorable opinion from an administrative judge in Tallahassee, state records show. FDOT Secretary Mike Dew then awarded the bid to Archer Western, the records show.

Meanwhile, former Miami commissioner Marc Sarnoff said he decided not to continue a separate lawsuit challenging the Archer Western award after losing a key decision at the Third District Court of Appeal.

An FDOT spokeswoman, Tish Burgher, said work will begin once the agency and the Archer Western team sign a contract. No start date has been set. A spokesman for the Archer Western team, Syl Lukis, said the contract award was justified because his clients met all requirements. Lukis called objections from critics "noise."

"The people of South Florida are going to be very happy with a wonderful, beautiful signature bridge," he said.

While a sitting commissioner representing downtown Miami, Sarnoff was a plaintiff in an earlier suit against FDOT, along with then-Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado. That suit successfully forced FDOT to include the signature bridge in the reconstruction project after agency leaders tried to renege on a promise to build it.

The bridge, and unusually elaborate companion plans to create a series of urban parks and recreational spaces under the new higher expressway, was meant to help reverse longstanding blight blamed on the existing 395 span. Construction of the span in the early 1960s destroyed hundreds of homes and buildings in historically black Overtown, physically divided the community and depressed property values for blocks around.

Both FAM and Sarnoff claimed that FDOT had improperly changed the scoring method for the bid competition at the last minute, effectively handing the bid to Archer Western by a razor-thin half-point margin while overriding a citizen's committee appointed to review the plans on aesthetics, a key element of the reconstruction plan. That committee overwhelmingly preferred FAM's signature bridge, as well as its design for public spaces under the new span.

The FDOT decision was announced before either of the rival proposals had been released to the public. The confidentiality was required by "cone of silence" rules meant to prevent lobbying during a bid competition, the agency said.

The cloak of secrecy and the claims of score-rigging prompted a civic and political uproar that split the community. While Regalado said he had no issue with FDOT's choice, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, among others, demanded that FDOT seek further public input before awarding the contract. The county commission also passed a resolution asking FDOT to present the rival plans in a public hearing. FDOT never publicly responded.

Some locals also ridiculed the Archer Western team's bridge design — six support arches of varying heights joined at a center point and intended to evoke a fountain. Some critics, though, likened it to a giant spider.

In April, an administrative law judge, Hetal Desai, concluded in an opinion that FDOT's decision should stand because FAM had not conclusively proved that the agency's scoring method was "capricious" or "clearly erroneous." Desai also stressed the citizens' aesthetics committee did in fact play a key role in vetting designs because it had the power to veto bridge designs early in the bid-screening process.

Desai also concluded that the FAM team's bridge design violated one of the competition's rules because it included decorative elements that served no structural function. The FAM bridge, designed by FIGG and another subcontractor, featured two giant support pylons meant to resemble dancers that incorporated spinning discs at the top with no structural role. That violation could have disqualified FAM's proposal.

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