New expressway idea for southwest Dade draws fire

Miami-Dade’s expressway authority has launched a multi-million-dollar study of what could be one of the most controversial transportation ideas to come down the pike in a while: A new north-south expressway that could run through farms and ecologically sensitive wetlands at the county’s extreme urban edge.

The most likely route, according to a conceptual plan developed by MDX, would take it along Krome Avenue, meaning the multi-lane expressway — billed as a “southwest extension” of State Road 836 — would run almost entirely outside the county’s Urban Development Boundary, on land now zoned for agriculture or environmental conservation.

MDX officials, who inked a contract for a five-year, $6.9 million study of the idea, say the expressway would extend south to Southwest 136th Street, providing relief for Miami-Dade’s sprawling and traffic-choked far western suburbs.

But environmentalists, planners and urban advocates have slammed the concept as an outdated car-centric scheme that will do little to relieve congestion, but instead open up tens of thousands of acres of farms and plant nurseries beyond the UDB to further suburban development. The contemplated roadway would also bring pollution and development closer to the imperiled Everglades National Park, they say.

“We think there is no need for this extension. It poses a direct threat to the Everglades and to the Redland,’’ said Jonathan Ullman, Everglades field organizer for the Sierra Club in Miami. “It’s just a sprawl road designed to benefit sprawl developers.’’

Administrators at MDX, a semi-independent agency that manages the county’s toll highways, say they’re well aware of the area’s environmental sensitivity. But they say many of the 850,000 residents along the corridor must now rely on dangerous Krome Avenue to travel north and south by car. Existing expressways to the east, meanwhile, are virtually inaccessible because of congestion on local roads, MDX executive director Javier Rodriguez said. And further growth is expected inside the urban boundary, he noted.

“Talk to the residents who live out there. It’s absolutely frustrating and devastating to go east,’’ Rodriguez said. “It’s crazy what’s happening out there. We have to deal with an existing problem that we have. How are going to deal with the growth?’’

The dilemma, some critics say, is the direct result of Miami-Dade’s permitting of scores of car-dependent, single-family home subdivisions far from major job centers in an environmentally sensitive zone — once all part of the Everglades watershed — without adequate roadways or mass transit.

But it’s unclear whether MDX’s concept will prove doable in an era of shrinking budgets for highway building and maintenance, and growing skepticism over whether highway expansion relieves congestion, or simply engenders more.

MDX has been quietly laying the foundation for the expressway for years. The agency last month signed a deal with Stantec, a multinational planning and engineering firm, to study the feasibility, environmental impact and best potential routes for the possible expressway. But the idea was first outlined in a 2009 conceptual plan for expansion of the agency’s network of toll roads. The new study will include substantial public input, a schedule of public events and the establishment of citizen advisory committees, MDX says, but it doesn’t mean the road will get built.

Stantec begins work as MDX gets ready to expand tolling to both directions on both SR 836 and State Road 112 and create new tolling points. The new tolling scheme would generate $400 million, which the agency will use to raise $400 million more to improve its existing network. The money would cover planned improvements of all interchanges on 836 east of the Palmetto Expressway and a western extension of the Gratigny Expressway, among other projects.

The southwest expressway is not part of that funding scheme, however. MDX officials say they do not know how much it would cost or how it would be financed, though tolling — the main source of agency funding — would be at least part of the formula.

They do know it would generate substantial opposition. The 2009 conceptual plan notes the project would likely require an “aggressive’’ public campaign. Also, that study noted, “there is the potential that the improved access may increase pressures for the continued extension of the County’s UDB.”

The concept plan identified a “study area’’ stretching from the end of 836 at Southwest 137th Avenue and Southwest Eight Street to Southwest 136th Street, and between Krome Avenue and Southwest 152nd Avenue.

That means the expressway would run through conservation zones like the Bird Road Basin and the county’s western wellfields as it bends to the south. Then, to continue south, it could take Krome, hug the UDB or follow Southwest 157th Avenue. MDX officials, however, acknowledge that last possibility seems unlikely because it would take the roadway through a built-up area, likely generating strong opposition from residents and requiring costly acquisition and condemnation of developed land.

“These are lines on a map. I’m not sure the 157th alternative would ever be done,’’ Rodriguez said. “That’s conceptual. We just said look somewhere west of the turnpike, in that area, and analyze as many options as possible.’’

But running the expressway along or outside the UDB appears to run counter to the county’s comprehensive development master plan, which steers such infrastructure into already urbanized areas to keep development from sprawling further west.

Those rules, which control zoning and land uses, require that the county spend its infrastructure money first inside the UDB, and only secondarily in certain areas already earmarked for modest expansion of the line, said Miami-Dade planning chief Mark Woerner.

The rules also require that land zoned as agricultural or conservation zones also be avoided, he said. Outside the UDB, the rules require that transportation improvements be limited to serving only the local rural population.

“Our concern will always be, what is the effect of providing infrastructure in areas that are not urbanized? Is that going to act as a catalyst for further sprawl? Does it solve the transportation issue, or does it make it worse?’’ Woerner said. “If it spurs additional development, you’re just adding new traffic. Look at the history. We built the Palmetto and filled that up. We built the Turnpike to the west and filled that up.’’

That land needs to remain mostly undeveloped for other reasons, said the Sierra Club’s Ullman. Low-lying western areas on the fringes of the national park will be critical for absorbing rising water levels caused by rising seas as they push their way into the aquifer that lies beneath South Florida, he said.

“We need that land to act as a sponge to protect the rest of our community against sea-level rise. This policy is headed in exactly the wrong direction,’’ Ullman said.

Moreover, some leading planners say studies show that adding or expanding highways only induces more traffic and does little to relieve congestion in the long run. In any case, they say, new expressways are increasingly rare because states are finding them increasingly an economic challenge to build and maintain — especially as public works and highway departments have trouble maintaining what already exists.

Instead of extending roadway networks to undeveloped areas, some planners say, local leaders should focus on channeling new construction into developed areas where roads and infrastructure already exist.

“To me it’s a little bit mind-boggling. It’s a highway to 1966,’’ said nationally known Coral Gables-based planner Victor Dover of the proposed expressway. “The idea of spending hundreds of millions of dollars to deliberately push development out into nurseries and farms and our dwindling hinterlands is the opposite of what we should be doing.’’

But MDX says decisions about development are not its bailiwick. Any proposed expressway, agency leaders say, will have to receive planning and environmental approvals from a range of local, state and federal agencies.

“We understand that land use is one of the big issues. That’s not something our board does,’’ Rodriguez said. “It’s far from being a done deal.’’