West Miami-Dade

This old railway was to become a bike trail — but it’s polluted. What happens now?

Lanterns illuminate the old rail line slated to become the Ludlam Trail during the holiday festival of lights in December 2015.
Lanterns illuminate the old rail line slated to become the Ludlam Trail during the holiday festival of lights in December 2015. Miami Herald file

The discovery of potentially extensive soil and groundwater contamination along the old Florida East Coast Railway line in West Miami-Dade has thrown a damper on ambitious plans to turn the right-of-way into a bikeway and linear park dubbed the Ludlam Trail.

Though not yet built, the proposed trail — a companion to the plan to turn 10 miles of threadbare paths under the Metrorail along South Dixie Highway into a park-like urban bikeway called the Underline — has already attracted substantial interest and use.

Railway owner Florida East Coast Industries and a grassroots group, Friends of the Ludlam Trail, have hosted a series of popular rides and events along the vacated rail corridor, including a holiday lights festival, for the past three years. People living along the disused, long-unsecured rail line long used it to jog or walk their dogs.

But that all came to an abrupt end when Miami-Dade environmental regulators ordered FECI to fence off the entire 6.2-mile length of the rail corridor, which runs parallel to Ludlam Road from Dadeland to just south of Miami International Airport. The fencing was ordered in mid-November after spot-testing found levels of arsenic and hydrocarbons exceeding allowable limits, though not at hazardous levels, in several places along the corridor.

The fencing is now mostly in place and will stay up indefinitely, until fuller testing is completed and a remediation plan is put in place by FECI, regulators said. That would likely require capping the corridor with clean fill to prevent people from coming into contact with any toxic chemicals. The technique is similar to that used to salvage several Miami and Miami-Dade County parks found to have potentially harmful levels of soil contamination in recent years.

In the meantime, FECI has canceled a year’s worth of scheduled events along the planned trail, said senior vice president Jose Gonzalez.

“It’s a little sad for us,” Gonzalez said. “These public events were growing in attendance and we loved having all this awareness of the trail plan. But public safety is first and foremost.”

The contamination findings were no surprise given the corridor’s former use as a railway, Gonzalez, trail backers and environmental regulators say. Most of the compounds found in quantities exceeding allowable limits during preliminary testing consist of arsenic, likely from the use of herbicides over decades to keep the line clear of vegetation, and hydrocarbons from greases and lubricants used on train machinery.

Testing was ordered last year as a matter of routine as the county was negotiating purchase of the right of way for construction of the contemplated trail. The county has about $15 million earmarked for purchase, though that’s not yet enough for the entire length of the trail. Miami-Dade Commissioner Rebeca Sosa, whose district includes a big chunk of the corridor, has secured about $8 million toward construction, though the total bill is not yet known.

There’s no reason for public alarm, stressed Wilbur Mayorga, chief of the county’s environmental monitoring division. But he ordered the fences in an abundance of caution until the precise extent of contamination is determined and a safety plan is developed and put in place.

Preliminary tests suggest groundwater contamination is limited to the center of the rail corridor and has not spread beyond that. Eleven home wells in a residential area on the south end of the trail were tested and came up clean. Further groundwater and well testing will be conducted by FECI environmental consultants, Mayorga said.

But because some spot soil samples close to the surface in some places showed amounts of arsenic and hydrocarbons well over allowable levels, Mayorga ordered wider soil testing and the entire corridor barricaded.

“We decided we didn’t want to wait until soil sampling was completed to tell members of the public not to be stepping into this area,” Mayorga said.

Some trail backers and neighbors were taken aback by the fence installation. Tony Garcia, chairman of the friends organization, said neither the county nor FECI had warned his group beforehand.

“It was a surprise for us. All of a sudden a few weeks ago we saw the fences go up. Now they have locks on them,” Garcia said, while questioning whether the entire corridor needed to be fenced off. He expressed concern that the fences could cause public support and momentum for the trail plan to wane.

“That’s a step in the wrong direction,” he said. “My main concern is opening up the trail as soon as possible. Who knows how long that will be?”

Mayorga said Tuesday he could not yet answer that question. FECI is responsible for conducting testing, reporting results to Mayorga’s staff for review, and developing and paying for remediation before the county will purchase any land, Miami-Dade officials said.

“FECI is going to have to ante up,” said Miami-Dade Commissioner Xavier Suarez, whose district also includes a portion of the railway, and who backs the trail plan. “Our main thrust is to keep most of that from being developed.”

Gonzalez suggested the fencing may stay up even after work on the trail begins, saving the county the cost of erecting construction barriers.

But he stressed that neither the contamination nor the fencing will stop the trail project. Virtually every one of hundreds of such rail-to-trail conversions in the country, including the vaunted High Line in lower Manhattan, has required environmental remediation, he said. Some have overcome significantly higher levels of contamination than has so far been found along the FECI line.

“The great news is, it can still be trail,” he said. “It’s all very manageable. From our standpoint, this is just an interim step.”

Planners and activists see the Ludlam Trail, which runs through densely developed residential, industrial and commercial districts, as a major facility for both recreation and transportation. It would put green space and multi-use trails suitable for recreational riding or commuting to jobs or errands within close proximity of tens of thousands of residents.

At its southern end, the trail would connect with the planned Underline, whose route runs from the Dadeland South station to the Miami River in downtown Miami. Though both ideas were developed around the same time and have significant support from public officials and corporate backers, the Underline has received more publicity given its higher-profile route.

FECI originally sought to develop the full length of the corridor with a mix of residential and commercial projects, but that plan drew strenuous opposition from residents, activists and public officials.

The Ludlam concept, drawn up by county planners, was a compromise that will allow FECI instead to develop several “nodes” at major intersections, such as Bird Road, while keeping most of the corridor as a paved, landscaped pathway for bikes, runners and pedestrians. A detailed trail plan, still to be drawn up, would also include recreational spaces such as playgrounds or picnic areas along the corridor.

One of the goals of testing will be to determine whether levels of arsenic in the corridor present any hazard to human health, Mayorga said. Allowable concentrations can vary according to the use land will be put to, with a higher tolerance for recreational and commercial uses than for residential uses.

Arsenic is found naturally in varying concentrations in Miami-Dade soil, but the county is trying to determine whether the levels found along the rail corridor exceed those in adjacent areas. The south end of the rail corridor was formerly farmland, and the arsenic could have come from herbicide or fertilizer use for crops, Mayorga said.

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