Downtown Miami

There’s no winner yet in I-395 reconstruction after six months of legal wrangles.

A rendering of the controversial winning proposal for the reconstruction of Interstate 395 features a “signature bridge” over Biscayne Boulevard suspended from multiple arches.
A rendering of the controversial winning proposal for the reconstruction of Interstate 395 features a “signature bridge” over Biscayne Boulevard suspended from multiple arches. Archer Western-The de Moya Group Joint Venture

Nearly six months after the state transportation agency’s selection of a contractor for the reconstruction of Interstate 395 came under significant fire, legal wrangles continue to stall the $800 million project, with no clear end in sight.

In the latest development, a lawsuit by former Miami Commissioner Marc Sarnoff against the Florida Department of Transportation over the project selection cleared a critical hurdle on Monday when a Miami-Dade circuit judge ruled against the agency’s request to dimiss the complaint. Sarnoff’s suit contends the agency acted improperly in deciding to award the contract to a consortium led by Archer Western and The de Moya Group.

Meanwhile, the high-profile dispute over the contract between Archer Western and the competition runner-up, Fluor-Astaldi-MCM, will go to an administrative judge in Tallahassee in November after months of mediation failed to produce a compromise between the two teams. In May, the Fluor-Astaldi team challenged FDOT’s decision to award the contract to Archer Western, contending the agency manipulated or botched the scoring in the bid competition, an allegation echoed separately by Sarnoff’s lawsuit.

Sources close to the process say conversations about a possible compromise that would essentially split the project between both teams will nonetheless continue.

In denying FDOT’s dismissal motion in the Sarnoff suit, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Samantha Ruiz Cohen appeared to accept a key argument by the former commissioner. Sarnoff and Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado had sued FDOT in 2013 after an agency higher-up attempted to back off public promises to replace the I-395 overpass over Biscayne Boulevard with a “signature bridge” to help reconnect neighborhoods like Overtown that were split by the highway span’s construction in the late 1960s.

To settle the case, FDOT agreed to create an aesthetic-review panel composed of local citizens to help pick a winning design for the new span. That panel ended up strongly favoring the Fluor-Astaldi proposal, which called for a bridge suspended from pylons that resemble dancers. But Sarnoff and Fluor-Astaldi contend FDOT, in violation of procedures laid out in the settlement, fudged the competition scoring to award the project to the Archer Western team, which proposed a bridge supported by multiple arches, by just half a point.

In its motion to dismiss the Sarnoff suit, however, FDOT claimed that the document that the agency, Sarnoff and Reglado signed was not a legally binding agreement. As a consequence, agency attorneys argued, a Miami-Dade judge would have no authority to hear the case. (Regalado is not a party to the new lawsuit.)

But Sarnoff’s attorneys presented the court with several statements in which FDOT officials explicitly referred to the agreement with the city. In comments from the bench, Ruiz Cohen said her court was the proper venue for the suit, suggesting she accepted the existence of a settlement.

In a statement, Sarnoff called the ruling “a triumph for the people of Miami.” An FDOT spokeswoman and a spokesman for the Archer Western team did not respond to requests for comment by deadline.

In a separate order on Monday, Ruiz Cohen also admitted the Archer Western team as a party in the Sarnoff suit.

The bid challenge by Fluor-Astaldi will be heard by Administrative Law Judge Hetal Desai in Tallahassee starting November 16. The hearing will be split into several sessions and could take up to three weeks, Desai said in an order.