Miami-Dade County

Ex-Miami commissioner asks court to stop award of I-395 reconstruction contract

A rendering of the signature bridge over Biscayne Boulevard in the top-ranked Interstate 395 reconstruction proposal from the Archer Western/The de Moya Group team.
A rendering of the signature bridge over Biscayne Boulevard in the top-ranked Interstate 395 reconstruction proposal from the Archer Western/The de Moya Group team. Archer Western/The de Moya Group

A former Miami commissioner who played a key role in the inclusion of a “signature bridge” element of the massive Interstate 395 reconstruction on Tuesday formally challenged the state transportation agency’s controversial choice of a bidder for the $800 million job.

Marc Sarnoff, who represented downtown Miami during two terms on the commission, filed a motion in Miami-Dade circuit court asking a judge to enforce an agreement settling a lawsuit that he and Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado filed in 2013 against the Florida Department of Transportation. Sarnoff and Regalado sued after FDOT officials tried to back off a pledge to include the signature bridge over Biscayne Boulevard in the I-395 replacement project.

Sarnoff’s motion alleges FDOT’s handling of the bids violated the settlement agreement and asks a judge to block the agency from awarding the project to the top-ranked team, led by contractors Archer Western and The de Moya Group. Sarnoff, a lawyer with the Shutts & Bowen firm, stressed he is not working for or representing any interested party in the matter.

If granted, the motion could result in the bid going to the second-ranked team, led by contractors Fluor, Astaldi and MCM. The proposal by the Fluor team was the clear favorite of a panel of community representatives charged with evaluating competitors’ plans on aesthetic grounds under the agreement. But Sarnoff and other critics contend FDOT manipulated the scoring of the rival proposals, effectively giving the win to Archer Western’s team by just a half-point.

FDOT and representatives of the Archer Western team did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Regalado released a letter in May saying he had no issue with FDOT’s bid process. The mayor’s letter came after Sarnoff’s attorneys at the Solowsky & Allen law firm released a public letter to the agency contesting its handling of the scoring.

Sarnoff’s filing on Tuesday is the second legal action challenging FDOT’s handling of the bids. The Fluor team filed a bid protest on similar grounds. A mediation session mandated under state law is scheduled for Thursday in the protest.

Town Square Neighborhood Development Corporation, an offshoot of the Arsht Center for the Performing Arts that makes planning recommendations for the area, meanwhile sent a strongly worded “grievance” letter to FDOT protesting the choice of Archer Western’s plan, which calls for a six-arched suspension bridge over Biscayne Boulevard.

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, the Miami-Dade commission and the county’s Transportation Planning Organization have also called FDOT’s selection process into question. The county has asked the agency to schedule public presentations of the rival plans before awarding the contract. FDOT, citing confidentiality rules governing competitive bids, declined to release the proposals until after a three-member selection panel made the final pick.

The conflicts arise from an unusually complex bid-selection process designed to ensure that the new expressway would reverse some of the damage done to majority-black Overtown and the surrounding urban fabric when I-395 was built in the 1960s. Though the signature bridge is a key piece, FDOT also called for extensive ground-level improvements under and around the elevated roadway as it runs for a mile through Overtown, the Omni district and the Arsht before connecting to the MacArthur Causeway.

Both of the two top-ranked proposals outline an elaborate series of parks, plazas and public spaces connected by a continuous pathway under the new expressway. The plans also have some significant differences, chief among them the design for the span over Biscayne Boulevard. The Fluor team’s blueprint envisions a bridge suspended from twin pylons that resemble stylized dancers.

As part of the 2013 settlement, FDOT agreed to name a five-person selection committee to judge the proposals on aesthetics. That panel included one FDOT official as well as Arsht president John Richard and Miami-Dade Commissioner Audrey Edmondson.

In his motion, Sarnoff contends that under the agreement the aesthetics panel was to issue the “sole” score on aesthetics. That committee’s score would be combined with a technical score issued by a panel of FDOT engineers to determine the winning bidder.

But when the FDOT aesthetics committee member resigned, Sarnoff and Fluor representatives say, the agency had the five FDOT engineers score the plans on aesthetics also, then combined their scores with those of the four remaining members of the aesthetic committee. The motion argues that violated the settlement by effectively overriding the community members’ votes, with the result that Archer Western took the high score. All four community representatives scored heavily in favor of the Fluor proposal, which would have carried the day had the original process been adhered to, the motion contends.

“Those extra votes diluted the votes of the community members of the Aesthetic Committee, drowned out the voice of the community, and breached the Settlement Agreement,” the motion argues.

Sarnoff’s motion contends FDOT also violated the agreement when it came time to have a three-person selection committee ratify the pick. Under the agreement, his court filing says, the panel was to consist of one representative each from FDOT, the city and the county. Instead, the panel was made up of two FDOT officials and the head of the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority. All three endorsed the pick of Archer Western without comment or discussion at a much-criticized public session.