Miami-Dade could double tolls on the Rickenbacker Causeway to fund an separated bike track and replace the Bear Cut bridge in a privatization plan expected to cost hundreds of millions of dollars, according to several people who have attended meetings on the proposal.
The venture would realize the ambitious “Plan Z” bike track, creating dedicated bike lanes, bridges and crossovers on one of Miami-Dade’s most popular and scenic cycling routes. The new “linear park” for bikes, a replacement span for Bear Cut and other causeway improvements by a boost to the current $1.75 toll charged only for eastbound motorists, with preliminary discussions exploring an increase to at least $4 round trip.
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Already the subject of high-level meetings at County Hall, the draft plan would tackle two of the most vexing problems on the main route to Key Biscayne: how to permanently fix the aging Bear Cut bridge, and how to provide a safe cycling option on a route notorious for fatal collisions with motor vehicles. It also would raise the causeway by three feet to prepare for future sea-level rise.
But money for the effort would come from drivers on the one bridge that links Key Biscayne with mainland Miami, a route that draws thousands of Miami-Dade residents each weekend to visit both the county’s popular Crandon Park beach and the state’s nearby Bill Baggs park.
“All the costs are being shifted to the 2 million residents that we have who go to the public beaches,” said Key Biscayne Mayor Mayra Peña Lindsay, a critic of the effort. “They’re coming from Kendall and Westchester and Little Haiti and Homestead to take their kids to the beach.”
The tolls are going to be an issue. [But] everything does cost money.
Key Biscayne resident Eugene Stearns
Lindsay said she met with Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez about the plan, a briefing led by the architect and namesake of the bike track, Bernard Zyscovich. He has teamed with a private-equity fund that wants to take over tolling on the causeway and finance the improvements.
The firm, United Bridge Partners of Denver, would use revenue from the higher tolls to refund its upfront costs on a project expected to cost at least $300 million, and then generate a profit for itself and partners over decades of toll collections. United Bridge is listed as a top donor to the nonprofit Plan Z for Miami that Zyscovich formed to solicit donations for the effort.
Eugene Stearns, a Key Biscayne resident and prominent lawyer who was briefed by Zyscovich on the venture, endorsed the need to raise significant cash to address the situation at Bear Cut. The 1944 bridge, which connects Virginia Key to Key Biscayne just east of the Miami Seaquarium, was partially shut down four years ago for “structural deficiencies” and then subject to a $31 million repair in 2014.
“It was impressive,” Stearns said of the proposal. “The Bear Cut bridge is an accident waiting to happen.” Even so, Stearns said he sees the toll hikes as an obstacle to getting the plan approved.
“The tolls are going to be an issue,” he said. But “everything does cost money.”
News of the proposal arrives at a time of widespread political backlash against tolls in Miami-Dade. Eastbound tolls on the Rickenbacker are already slated to rise 50 cents to $2.25 on Oct. 1 under the county budget Gimenez submitted to county commissioners this summer. The county’s other coastal toll bridge, the Venetian Causeway, would see the same increase if the budget gets approved.
The president of United Bridge Partners was not immediately available for an interview. Officials at the mayor’s office and the county’s Parks Department, which oversees the Rickenbacker, also were not available for comment on the plan.
All the costs are being shifted to the 2 million residents that we have who go to the public beaches.
Key Biscayne Mayor Mayra Peña Lindsay
The Rickenbacker plan would likely come to Miami-Dade as an “unsolicited” proposal — a legal term for an option that allows firms to engage in private and confidential talks with government officials about possible privatization plans. Once an “unsolicited” proposal is submitted, the government can either reject it or invite other bidders to make a better offer. The 13-member Miami-Dade commission would have final say on whether to pursue the Rickenbacker plan or reject it.
“There aren’t really funds out there that fund these sort of projects without putting the county on the hook,” Zyscovich said. “The way I look at it is this is a very rare opportunity to have a third-party funding source in place to implement transformational infrastructure improvements for Miami-Dade.”
While the privatization aspect is new, Zyscovich’s “Plan Z” has been under discussion for several years as a way to flip the Rickenbacker’s reputation for cycling danger into an ambitious new linear park and cycling track running parallel to the roadway. The effort is expected to cost at least $100 million, according to people who have met with Zyscovich.
Schematics of the plan designed by Zyscovich, an avid cyclist, show an orange bike track starting on mainland Miami, separated from auto traffic by a fence and running alongside a yellow pedestrian path.
As the divided paths approach Biscayne Bay on the way to Virginia Key, the lanes divert above the road on a winding overpass that takes them to the island for an expansive linear park parallel to the beach. On the William Powell Bridge, site of multiple cycling deaths, the protected lanes are broad enough to include an observation area at the peak. The lanes then connect with Miami’s Virginia Key and heads over Bear Cut into Key Biscayne. The plan also shifts part of the roadway to create a wider swath of waterfront parkland.
In May, the Gimenez administration notified Miami that the county planned to take back land off the Rickenbacker that the city had hoped to use as a parking garage for its Marine Stadium project on Virginia Key. The county told Miami officials it wanted to preserve the parcel for the Plan Z effort in case Miami-Dade opted to fund it in the future.
Xavier Suarez, the county commissioner who represents Key Biscayne, said some parts of Plan Z appeal to him, but that there’s widespread concern by Key Biscayne residents about narrowing causeway lanes to accommodate it.
“I like Bernard’s thinking, and some of the features of it are excellent,” he said. “But I don’t like the price tag. … And I don’t want to make it prohibitive for people to go into Key Biscayne to work and enjoy themselves.”