Coral Gables and county move closer to constructing a pedestrian bridge across U.S. 1

The city of Coral Gables and Miami-Dade County are hammering out a deal for a pedestrian bridge across U.S. 1 that would not involve University Centre, the strip mall whose owners refused the county’s $1.8 million offer to compensate for the loss of five parking spaces needed to anchor the bridge.

The bridge was proposed because eight University of Miami students have been killed or seriously injured since 1989 trying to cross busy S. Dixie Highway at that intersection.

If the city, county and the Federal Transit Administration sign off on the plan, whose details are still being worked out, the Mediterranean-style overpass would soar above U.S. 1 and land in the right-of-way of Mariposa Court, the intersection that runs on the eastern boundary of the shopping center.

“If you take a look at Mariposa, there is one inbound lane from U.S. 1 and an exclusive left- and right-turn lanes. The idea would be to make the exclusive left and right lanes into one lane that would serve dual purpose right and left — and keep the inbound lane. This would essentially reduce the section from three to two lanes, giving us room to put the tower from the bridge into the public right-of-way,” said Albert Hernandez, assistant director of engineering, planning and development for Miami-Dade Transit.

The county, Hernandez says, likes this plan.

“This is something we are looking at, and it’s not final, but it is a promising solution. Our traffic engineer has shown that it works; you could clear the queue,” he said. “One question was, Since two lanes are turning into one, aren’t you going to get a big backup? But since we are now forcing everyone [pedestrians] onto the bridge, there’s no need to have a second phase for pedestrians. So the time you gain by not having an exclusive phase for pedestrians to cross U.S. 1, that time is given to clear Mariposa.”

The city of Coral Gables, likewise, endorses the plan.

“I met with the county attorney’s office [Thursday] and we are looking at different options to proceed and the city looks at it favorably,” said Coral Gables City Attorney Craig Leen. “We are trying to find a way to proceed with the county so we are looking at the possibility of some sort of encroachment agreement or an easement. Ultimately, that would need to go to the city commission but we view it favorably.”

Coral Gables Mayor Jim Cason, City Manager Pat Salerno and city commissioners have all spoken of their desire to resolve the situation.

Since 1989, eight UM students have been struck trying to cross U.S. 1 to get to the retail spots at the center, such as T.G.I. Friday’s, Bagel Emporium, Pier 1 Imports, as well as a yogurt shop, gym and Radio Shack.

State and federal agencies have allocated about $6 million for the bridge, which has been designed.

On Friday afternoon, students and staff from the University of Miami gathered at the University Metrorail station and Mariposa, eight years to the day in April 2005 when UM student Ashley Kelly was struck and killed by an SUV while crossing U.S. 1. She was walking to T.G.I. Friday’s with a friend to meet potential roommates.

Kelly’s parents had planned to attend the rally, in which students released a petition with more than 2,500 signatures urging the strip center’s owners to reverse their decision. “Ashley’s parents decided it was too painful for them [to attend] but they allowed us to use her picture. Ashley did not die in vain,” said Pat Whitely, the UM’s vice president of student affairs.

Though she hasn’t been alerted of the newly discussed plans between the city and county, Whitely praised the city’s and county’s efforts.

“This news would be a dream come true, to save lives. That is what this amounts to, to save our students’ lives, and community members’ and Ponce Middle School too,” Whitely said. “This would be wonderful news at the end of the school year. We are proud of our students here that have continued to be instrumental, along with the county and city and state and federal agencies.”

Hernandez said after Coral Gables gives the county a permanent easement or similar alternative, the next step would be to present the plan to the Federal Transit Administration. If the three institutions agree, the county would review the bridge’s design. Construction would take two years.

Leen believes it will take about a month for the Gables commission to receive plans, which the city’s five commissioners would have to approve.

The county’s offer of $1.85 million to the shopping center owners would be rescinded, Hernandez said.

“Poetic justice,” said Coral Gables Vice Mayor Bill Kerdyk Jr.

Still, the University Centre owners — Fredi Consolo, Theodore Roy, Gail C. Gidney and Louis Grossman, trustee — are not in favor of a bridge at this intersection, according to a statement released Friday afternoon by their attorney, Amy Brigham Boulris.

“We sincerely believe a pedestrian bridge is not the best solution to the issue of pedestrian safety on this stretch of Dixie Highway. The public resources available should be devoted to installing street level pedestrian crossings with industry standard lighting and other current technologies, at more than one location, for the benefit of students from the university, as well as younger students from the nearby middle school and new magnet school, and the members of the general public attending events at the BankUnited Center. Some of the most serious accidents reported in this area have been a result of poor lighting.

“If a bridge were to be installed, it should be more centrally located to serve all these pedestrian groups, not just the university, though the university would be well served by a different location, too. Moving the location to the south to UM owned property, for example, would more directly connect UM facilities on the east and west sides of the highway, and would be a closer connection to the center of South Miami frequented by students.”

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