Miami-Dade County

With a Miami politician coming for a tour, state road crews told to get to work

West Flagler construction causing financial heartache for business owner

Jorge Fernandez has been a business owner in Little Havana for nearly 50 years but endless construction on West Flagler street is causing him financial troubles.
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Jorge Fernandez has been a business owner in Little Havana for nearly 50 years but endless construction on West Flagler street is causing him financial troubles.

Shortly after a Miami-Dade commissioner scheduled a tour of the Florida Department of Transportation’s delayed reconstruction of Flagler Street in Little Havana, a state contractor sent out word to make sure the politician saw as few problems as possible.

“Miami-Dade County Commissioner Eileen Higgins and FDOT officials will be walking the job on Tuesday afternoon,” state contractor Arturo Perez emailed a colleague last week. “Please assure clear pedestrian access... Open any unnecessarily closed side streets, such as 9 AV. Clear as much debris and garbage from the job site as possible before then, and please assure that crews remain busy that afternoon...”

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A Nov. 13, 2018 email from a state contractor on the Flagler Street reconstruction project urging extra work and street openings ahead of a county commissioner visiting the site.

As Higgins began her escorted tour early Tuesday afternoon, Ninth Avenue — which was closed Monday — was indeed open as the commissioner walked by. Sidewalks that had been crumbling the week before were now patched with temporary asphalt curbs. And a construction site that has been slammed for trash piling up on sidewalks was looking particularly tidy.

“I’m not happy,” Higgins said during the tour with state administrators and Perez’s firm, Pinnacle Consulting, which oversees the contractor, Russell Engineering. Higgins said she noticed crews working later than usual on Flagler Street last week in what she assumed was a scramble to improve things before her official walk-through. “Everybody knows if I hadn’t scheduled a visit, no one would be working after 4 p.m.”

Higgins’ harsh words, and the internal emails that attempted to prevent them, are sure to provide the latest source of fury for business owners who have accused the two-year reconstruction project of devastating the Flagler economy.

Mario Cabrera, the senior state official in the delegation guiding Higgins through the 12-block construction site, conceded that extra effort could be made to improve things further. He largely blamed the extended schedule on Russell Engineering, which Cabrera said was not invited to attend the tour.

Miami-Dade Commissioner Eileen Higgins declares herself not too happy with the construction mess as she tours Flagler Street with state officials on Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2018. C.M. GUERRERO Miami Herald

“I have been hounding the owner of this company day in and day out,” Cabrera said. Later, he joined Higgins in demanding a street corner no longer be used to house a mounting pile of concrete debris. “Get it moved,” he said sharply, turning to the cluster of staff and contractors around him. “Who is taking notes?”

Representatives of Pinnacle and Russell Engineering did not respond to inquiries Tuesday about the Nov. 13 email exchange between Perez, the president of Pinnacle, and Brian Gibbs, vice president of Russell Engineering. Gibbs wrote back to Perez and said teams were already on the site that evening, and that he would speak to everyone in the morning.

The Miami Herald obtained the email from a public-records request for correspondence in Higgins’ District 5 office about the Flagler project. The exchange between the two contractors appeared to be sent to Higgins inadvertently. The commissioner forwarded it to an aide with the remark: “FYI. Odd instructions about next week’s visit.”

Miami-Dade Commissioner Eileen Higgins, center, complains about disruptions on Flagler Street as she tours the construction site near Ninth Avenue with state officials on Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2018. C.M. GUERRERO Miami Herald

In a statement, Florida’s Department of Transportation said the agency constantly works to improve the traffic flow and appearance of a job site. “Project protocol includes continuous project inspection and clean up including, but not limited to, a walkthrough with an elected official,” spokeswoman Tish Burgher said in an email.

A batch of emails from Higgins and staff about the Flagler Street project do show a flurry of activity last week. Some of it appeared to be in response to recent demands from her staff and other community advocates. On Nov. 14, Sergies Duarte, the state’s outreach specialist for the Flagler project, wrote Higgins aides to say workers had installed temporary sidewalks to address complaints by the Live Healthy Little Havana nonprofit.

“Crews worked last night at the intersection of 12 Avenue and W. Flagler Street to address these concerns,” Duarte wrote to officials with the county and Miami, which also had pressed Florida for action to help Live Healthy.

Business complaints have become so desperate along Flagler that Miami has threatened to sue the state over delays. Florida had said the Flagler effort would be done this year, and its latest project sheet has completion scheduled by the end of the month. But that November completion date is no longer the plan, with Cabrera telling Higgins that construction crews “are working very aggressively to get this wrapped up by the end of the year.” He also said fines would kick in for Russell Engineering if the work isn’t completed in early 2019.

Florida says complications arose from underground utilities and water and sewer pipes that ended up being more complex to work around than engineers had expected.

“Unforeseen conditions and significant additional utility work have delayed the project,” Burgher said. She noted that, while side streets have been closed, Flagler itself has always been open to vehicular traffic “and will remain open.”

Edwin Romero, a barber on Flagler Street, said he was surprised Tuesday to see Ninth Avenue finally open to traffic after being closed for weeks, if not months. “It’s much better,” he said from his chair at The Block Barbershop at the corner of Ninth and Flagler. With access to the strip mall’s lot, Romero said customers weren’t forced to park blocks away for a visit.

Sen. José Javier Rodríguez, D-Miami, sponsored legislation last year that would require Florida to make modest payments to small businesses disrupted by state road construction projects. The legislation would require the state to reimburse up to $15,000 in lost profits a year. He said he was not surprised by the preparations for the Higgins visit to Flagler, saying the agency appears to be more adept at catering to elected officials than at making road projects less disruptive long-term.

“They do these sorts of things with elected officials — tours, endless meetings,” he said. “But their behavior doesn’t change one bit.”