Miami-Dade County

Trump signals U-turn on federal opposition to highway across Everglades wetlands

Miami-Dade County transportation planners want to extend the Dolphin Expressway about 14 miles across wetlands just north of the Tamiami Trail and then south through the Bird Drive Basin and about 2,000 feet west of Southwest 157th Avenue, shown here, across wetlands that include land set aside for Everglades restoration.
Miami-Dade County transportation planners want to extend the Dolphin Expressway about 14 miles across wetlands just north of the Tamiami Trail and then south through the Bird Drive Basin and about 2,000 feet west of Southwest 157th Avenue, shown here, across wetlands that include land set aside for Everglades restoration.

In the first year of the Trump administration, Department of the Interior officials issued a rare, detailed letter warning Miami-Dade County that extending the Dolphin Expressway across sensitive wetlands could block part of the $16 billion, decades long effort to restore the ailing Everglades.

"The Department is concerned that placement of a 4- to 6-lane high-speed paved highway on these lands is in conflict with the legally mandated purpose for which these lands were acquired," read the letter, which was signed by a holdover from the Obama administration.

Three months later — with a new Trump appointee overseeing Everglades restoration — the federal agency signaled it was open to a U-turn on the prospect of paving protected wetlands. Just after Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez announced plans to make the Kendall Parkway a top priority for his final term in office, Interior sent a second short, breezy and encouraging letter to expressway planners that the previous letter was under review.

"This administration is taking steps toward modernizing our nation's infrastructure and has pledged to scale back restrictive government regulations whenever possible," former Deputy Assistant Secretary Jason Larrabee wrote. "Please know that we are exploring all options for your proposed project and look forward to connecting with you."

A policy shift on wetlands and Everglades protection would seem to conflict with an earlier promise by candidate Donald Trump, who in October 2016 at a Collier County rally promised Florida voters to "work alongside you to restore and protect the beautiful Everglades."

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A map included in an Interior Department letter includes a half-mile wide area, shaded in blue, intended for Everglades restoration. Department officials worried that the proposed 836 extension would interfere with the project.

The controversial 14-mile extension is expected to cost between $650 million and $680 million and has sparked fervent opposition and support, from frustrated environmentalists and smart growth advocates to weary South Dade commuters. Opponents worry that the project, which sits outside the Urban Development Boundary, will stand in the way of restoration and lead to more congestion. They also say it could jeopardize a county drinking water wellfield that relies on the wetlands to recharge the aquifer.

Proponents, led by Gimenez, say it provides the urgent relief needed. In the months leading up to this month's vote, MDX rallied support with an online petition and 20,000 mailers that allowed receivers to show support but not opposition. If approved, construction could begin next year.

The first letter detailing federal concerns, dated November 2017, came up during a daylong public hearing earlier this month, when county commissioners voted 9-2 to move the extension forward with a request to state regulators.

"The Department of Interior has already advised that further development on the western boundary is a bad idea," said climate activist Albert Gomez.

What was not clear at the time was that the department, under the Trump administration, had sent a follow-up in February of this year signaling it was open to reversing the agency's previous stance. The Miami-Dade Expessway Authority provided the letter this week in response to a Herald request for a copy of the initial DOI letter.

In the first letter, Shannon Estenoz, the former director of the Office of Everglades Restoration, said she wanted to document concerns raised by the agency during a meeting, though not necessarily cover every issue that would, for example, include protected wildlife. Estenoz was specifically worried that the highway would interfere with a project slated for the western half-mile stretch of the wetlands, called the Bird Drive Basin.

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While highway planners have not settled on a final route, the latest proposal takes the highway outside the urban development boundary and across wetlands set aside for Everglades restoration.

Since the county began talking about the project in 2015, Estenoz wrote, DOI had repeatedly "stressed the importance of protecting both the federal grant investments and the footprint of the future Bird Drive Basin" Everglades project. Estenoz, who is now COO of the Everglades Foundation, declined to comment on the letter, saying she could no longer speak for the agency.

The basin was originally intended to be used for a reservoir to deliver water to marshes and the southern Everglades cut off from freshwater flows by flood control. Because of South Florida's leaky limestone, and fears that water might flood nearby farmland and neighborhoods, it was reworked to provide a flow-way tied to canals. It's also considered critical to fighting coastal damage to the shallow aquifer from sea rise by providing additional freshwater to fend off saltwater intrusion.

If ultimately approved, the highway would also extend across the Pennsuco wetlands north of the basin that the state uses as a mitigation bank to allow development on wetlands elsewhere. So far, the state has spent tens of millions to purchase and preserve the wetlands.

Neither the DOI's press office nor Marshall Critchfield, Estenoz's replacement as interim director, responded to requests for comment. MDX spokeswoman Tere Garcia said the second letter from the Trump administration, written in February of this year, arrived unsolicited and was not in response to inquiries from local officials.

"The letter was to us and we did not request it and as far as we know the County did not," she said in a text.

If the DOI agrees to free up land for the highway, it would be an unprecedented move. The agency has only once before agreed to lift restrictions on land set aside for restoration, and that occurred earlier this year in a deal that allowed the state to finish treatment marshes needed to provide the Everglades with clean water.

Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich