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Hearing on Miami-Dade’s new highway is Thursday. So why don’t we know where it’s going?

Just a day before the final public hearing on controversial plans to extend Miami-Dade’s congested Dolphin Expressway across wetlands once considered off-limits to urban sprawl, questions over the project remain, including this biggie: the six-lane highway’s precise location.

In the weeks leading up to Thursday’s vote, following a roughly $150,000 ad blitz by the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority promoting the Kendall Parkway as a solution to South Dade’s crippling traffic, environmentalists, residents and developers have repeatedly questioned officials over the shifting route and lack of detail. In a legal notice published in advance of the hearing last week, the county included a map depicting an eastern route. Commissioners’ application packet, however, contains a map with the route to the west.

County officials blamed the disparity on problems scaling the map. But to critics, it’s another indication of the rush to vote before important questions can be answered.

“It’s Monday and where is the actual analysis of the impacts on this corridor, this new one?” said attorney Richard Grosso, who is representing 1000 Friends of Florida, a smart-growth nonprofit, Friends of the Everglades, Tropical Audubon and three other groups. “MDX has put out robo calls and mailers and slick videos. It’s hard to honestly conclude they’ve tried to get the right answer.”

Even Kendall residents desperate for relief question the slipperiness of the evolving plans.

“Trying to get the route has been unbelievable,” said Kendall Federation of Homeowners Association president Michael Rosenberg, who spent last week on the phone with state regulatory agencies looking for answers. “Tallahassee told me the one they sent was like a cartoon.”

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A map published Sept. 17 in the Miami Herald with a legal notice announcing Thursday’s hearing shows a proposed 836 extension running further east.

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The proposed route for the 836/Dolphin Expressway extension included in the application scheduled for a vote Thursday jogs further west. Source: Miami-Dade County

County officials say those details will come and an agreement between the county and MDX included in the application to state land use planners will ensure that.

“We acknowledge there’s a lot more to be done, but this is basically the threshold for it to move forward at all,” said Assistant Planning Director Jerry Bell.

Determining the route can have important consequences: Parts of the wetlands, known as the Bird Drive Basin, are included in the $16.8 billion Everglades restoration plan as a critical link to delivering water south to dying marshes choked by flood control and keeping water inside Everglades National Park. Healthy marshes help fight back saltwater intrusion and protect South Florida’s water supply.

Residents had objected to an eastern path that sought to avoid the restoration project but that they worried veered too close to them. The more westerly route, however, crosses parts of the Everglades project footprint. Sections of the highway also cover land already bought and set aside by the federal and state government for restoration work, which prompted the Department of the Interior to raise concerns in November. The highway would also cut across wetlands to the north, purchased by the government and being restored to make up for damage done by rock-mining and other development.

Last month, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said he would ask federal agencies to oppose the plan if it interfered with Everglades work, setting up a major obstacle. On Tuesday, his office said that while he has tried to work with county officials, he plans on issuing a letter Wednesday confirming his opposition to any plan that hinders ongoing restoration. Rubio has also struggled to get specific information on the highway, his office said.

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Wetlands at the southwest corner of Southwest 157th Avenue and Southwest Eighth Street owned by the South Florida Water Management District and outside the Urban Development Boundary are part of an Everglades restoration project intended to push more water south to the Everglades and protect fresh water supplies. Tim Chapman Miami Herald File

Critics say the smarter solution fixes Miami-Dade’s traffic woes without changing a comprehensive plan created to prevent sprawl and protect the rare swaths of sensitive land.

“Their [comprehensive master plan] says they can’t do this, so what they want to do is change their comp plan so they can do something that’s not right for the community,” said environmental consultant Laura Reynolds. “This vote represents our commissioners saying yes, it’s OK to move forward and throw out all the rules.”

Plans to extend the highway date back nearly a decade, but faltered after booming growth in South Florida slowed on the heels of the recession. In recent years, as growth resumed, traffic worsened dramatically. MDX estimates commutes average up to three hours a day for some South Dade residents. In 2017, INRIX ranked Miami traffic fifth worst among U.S. cities.

Earlier this year, County Mayor Carlos Gimenez made the 13-mile extension a priority for his last term in office. Gimenez also endorsed expanding bus routes rather than the county’s Metrorail commuter line, angering smart-growth advocates who say he’s ignoring county transportation plans. In June, the commission voted 9-2 on a preliminary approval for the highway, despite questions over environmental impacts and checks on sprawl.

State regulators have said the plans so far provide too little detail for them to support or oppose the plan. This week, officials with the South Florida Water Management District and Florida Department of Environmental Protection said they had not received any information on the latest route.

But on Tuesday, county officials defended the plan and said an agreement between the county and MDX ensures that the highway prevents further sprawl and that whatever route is settled on doesn’t interfere with Everglades work. The agreement requires MDX to tally traffic on surrounding roads before the highway opens so that future decreases in congestion can’t be used to allow more development. MDX must also purchase at least 1,000 acres of wetland and turn it over to the county for permanent protection.

Creating a wetland buffer between the highway and the urban development boundary prevents future expansion, said Lee Hefty, director of the Division of Environmental Resources Management. Purchasing the land also protects it from being converted to farmland, he said.

“To move the UDB, you have to move contiguous with existing development,” he said. “So by purchasing the land...you foreclose on the ability to move the UDB because it’s no longer contiguous.”

However, the agreement does not spell out specific locations inside the basin nor does it require the land to be contiguous. Since no environmental assessment has been completed, it’s also not clear how the thousand-acre requirement was reached.

The county also provided responses to the regulatory agencies, assuring the agencies that their concerns would be addressed as the highway design is finalized. Officials also say regulatory agencies will have a chance to weigh in to curb damage to wetlands — like raising the road or installing more culverts. Hefty said he intends to bring wetland permitting back for a vote before the commission — giving the public at least once more chance to weigh in — rather than have staff approve it as it normally does.

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The Bird Drive Basin was originally part of Shark River Slough, the main artery for water flowing south through the Everglades.

Part of the shifting route has also been in response to pushback from property owners. Rosenberg said his homeowners wanted the highway moved west. He said he would oppose the plan unless commissioners agree that any future changes pass with super majority ‘plus’ approval, requiring 11 out of the 13 votes from the commission.

But at least one large property owner, developers for the 600-plus acre Green City project at Kendall Drive and 167th Avenue, say the county ignored their request despite efforts to work with officials. In an unlikely alliance, they’ve joined with environmentalists in asking commissioners to hold off on a vote Thursday.

“We’ve been trying to work with MDX for over four years and it’s kind of like pulling teeth,” attorney Francisco Pines said, explaining that his clients had worked at following rules for developing in the Urban Expansion Area. “MDX is the opposite. They just shift it whenever they get a call.”

Even county commissioners acknowledged negotiations have been tense.

Commissioner Joe Martinez, who represents West Kendall, had wanted the highway’s southern end to jog about a mile and a half farther west, creating a bigger buffer for suburban homes to the east. But he said he dropped the demand to help Gimenez secure the votes needed for approval Thursday.

“It’s a political map,” Martinez said this week. “It’s not always what you want, but what you can do.”

Miami Herald staff writer Douglas Hanks contributed to this report.

Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich
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