State water managers and environmental regulators are raising red flags over Miami-Dade County’s plan to extend the Dolphin Expressway across protected wetlands on the fringes of Everglades National Park.
In letters sent this month by the South Florida Water Management District and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, officials say proposed routes for the Kendall Parkway appear to cut across land set aside to help save parched marshes in the Everglades. While heavy on transportation data, officials said the plans lack detailed information about impacts to natural resources, water supply and flood control.
“It is critical that this amendment ensures protection of the Everglades,” FDEP environmental specialist Lindsay Weaver wrote this week.
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The contentious plan to extend the busy highway west and south to ease congestion in Southwest Miami-Dade County, and championed by Mayor Carlos Gimenez, has drawn heavy support from residents. But environmentalists and transportation planners say it encourages sprawl by pushing outside the county’s urban development boundary. The project also crosses land included in an area known as the Bird Drive Basin purchased by federal and state agencies as part of the Everglades $16 billion restoration effort.
Last week, Sen. Marco Rubio came out against the project, saying he planned to ask federal agencies to oppose it and setting up a significant roadblock.
Late Wednesday, Gimenez issued a statement saying planners of the extension were working on moving the route back to the east — undoing part of a westward push that was implemented to address complaints by West Kendall residents that the expressway’s original alignment was too close to their homes.
“I agree with Sen. Rubio’s concerns,” Gimenez said in the statement. “He doesn’t have a categorical objection but simply wants to make sure the project goes as far as possible to protect the Everglades.” Gimenez also downplayed the correspondence from state regulators raising concerns about efforts to protect the Everglades.
“This is part of the normal oversight process,” he said. “There are comments — not objections.”
The Miami-Dade Expressway Authority, the independent toll board proposing the highway extension, did not respond to a request for comment. Gimenez serves as chairman of the toll board, holding one of the seats filled by appointees of the county commission.
Gimenez, who made building the extension a priority for his final term in office, has said the county addressed environmental and transportation concerns by including traffic limits on surrounding roads connected to the highway. A 14-mile nature trail alongside the highway would also be set aside.
But state officials say so far the county has failed to produce any detailed analysis to back up the claims in its application to amend the county’s comprehensive growth plan. Exhibits submitted by the county “primarily contain transportation data and analysis and are missing environmental data and analysis,” water management district officials wrote. The county also failed to explain how the project would “avoid, minimize and mitigate” damage to shrinking wetlands, or explain how transportation hubs along the highway would be supplied water. The county has also failed to provide a stormwater management plan showing how the 14-mile-long extension would not damage surrounding areas in the low-lying Everglades.
The proposed routes cross or run alongside two Everglades projects, including a canal and half-mile buffer area. Part of the route appears to be inside the buffer, officials said. The highway also crosses the Pennsuco wetlands, a sprawling mitigation bank created to allow developers and rock miners to dig up wetlands elsewhere. The Pennsuco lands also help keep water from leaking into more developed areas to the east and recharge drinking water supplies.
Plans to extend State Road 836, also known as the Dolphin Expressway, date back at least a decade but have gained steam as congestion worsened around the Kendall area. MDX officials, who launched a website to garner support, say residents spend up to three hours daily commuting. But the latest plans, critics argued, have appeared rushed and incomplete. After announcing the extension, the county held workshops and repeatedly shifted routes.
Earlier this month, members of the South Florida Regional Planning Council, made up of area mayors and commissioners, complained the route continued to shift before voting to oppose it. Cost estimates have also increased from $650 million provided by MDX in June to $1 billion in August. DEP officials, citing the lack of information, suggested MDX review comments DEP provided in 2009 and 2011.
“It’s unfortunate that they didn’t do their due diligence and coordinate this back in 2009. We wouldn’t be sitting here today,” said Laura Reynolds, who represents Friends of the Everglades and the Hold the Line Coalition. “There could be a combination of a roadway and robust public transit inside the [urban development boundary] where you’re not impacting these lands we desperately need for resiliency.”