Marco Rubio announced Tuesday that he will ask federal agencies to oppose the 836 expressway expansion into West Kendall, a major roadblock for Mayor Carlos Gimenez and the Miami-Dade County Commission after they gave preliminary approval for the 14-mile highway in June.
The Republican senator’s alignment with environmentalists, who say the highway would damage the Everglades and cause urban sprawl, could affect the project’s progress due to federal land swaps from the Department of Interior that are needed before construction can begin.
“As a lifelong resident of Miami-Dade County, I know the residents of West Kendall need a solution to their traffic woes. But a solution to this problem cannot come at the expense of Everglades restoration,” Rubio said in a statement. “Therefore, I intend to ask all relevant federal agencies to oppose the proposed roadway project until it is aligned as far east as feasible and includes provisions that will guarantee an effective and enduring ‘West Kendall Everglades Buffer’ that prevents rather than encourages additional development in the project area.”
The announcement puts the senator in the camp of environmental groups like the Sierra Club and Friends of the Everglades in opposing the current plan for an historic expansion of Miami-Dade’s busiest toll road. Gimenez, who serves as chairman of the toll board that would build the extension, is the top champion for the project and has presided over the proposed route shifting west to address complaints from residential neighborhoods just east.
In his own statement, Gimenez said the opposition from a fellow Republican came after the mayor tried to persuade Rubio that the proposed “Kendall Parkway” posed no environmental threat.
“I spoke with Sen. Rubio recently,” Gimenez said, “and explained that in no way, shape or form will the proposed Kendall Parkway extension negatively affect Everglades restoration projects... There continues to be a lot of misinformation about what the project will do.... We gladly welcome Sen. Rubio’s concerns and will work with him to ensure he has all the information to make an informed decision.”
The high-profile pushback to the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority’s plan to roughly double the existing 836 expressway comes ahead of what’s expected to be a final vote on the project by the Miami-Dade County Commission later this year. The proposed route crosses through the county’s urban development boundary, which is designed to prevent extensive residential and commercial development from encroaching on the Everglades.
Rubio, who has worked closely with the Trump administration on issues related to Latin America, could use his muscle on Capitol Hill and influence in the White House to sway Interior and other federal agencies like the Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency, which would need to provide permits for the highway extension. He also serves on the Senate subcommittee that provides direct oversight of federal agencies like Interior and the EPA.
The federal government’s position on the highway appeared to shift earlier this year after the Interior Department said it was reviewing a letter issued by an Obama appointee in November warning that the agency “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.”
In June, Interior Deputy Assistant Secretary Jason Larrabee wrote the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority, “Please know that we are exploring all options for your proposed project and look forward to connecting with you.”
That same month, the county commission voted 9-2 to preliminarily approve the project, with commissioners Daniella Levine Cava and Xavier Suarez voting against.
Rubio said finishing ongoing Everglades restoration efforts was one of the issues that led him to seek reelection to the Senate in 2016 after initially saying he wasn’t interested in running for a second term.
While the proposed highway extension is to be funded by tolls, Rubio could play a major role securing additional federal funding from Washington if needed, as elected officials often vocally support infrastructure projects in their home states.
But a highway that crosses Miami-Dade’s Urban Development Boundary, a buffer that separates protected wetlands from development, is a different beast, drawing intense scrutiny from opponents who worry that a new highway would interfere with planned restoration work by the South Florida Water Management District and jeopardize county drinking water supplies.