So this is ironic: A controversial plan to build a highway across protected wetlands could help a stalled Everglades restoration project in a last-minute deal struck by Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez and Sen. Marco Rubio Wednesday.
Or at least that’s the plan.
The divisive, 13-mile extension to the 836/Dolphin Expressway comes before the County Commission Thursday and faces fierce opposition from environmentalists and smart growth advocates who say too many questions remain unanswered as the county fast-tracks approval. State regulators have also raised red flags, saying Miami-Dade has so far failed to assess the environmental damage caused by building a six-lane highway across what used to be part of the Everglades Shark River Slough, the main artery for marshes.
Last month, Rubio said he would ask federal agencies to oppose the highway — creating a major obstacle — over concerns that it would interfere with a South Dade project and slow what’s already plodding progress on the $16 billion restoration effort.
But in a letter to county staff Wednesday, he said he’d be willing to drop his opposition if the county ensures the highway includes this major ask: Buy all the land south of the Tamiami Trail and east of Krome Avenue needed to buffer the Everglades project. His office said that amounts to about 2,200 acres.
“While I understand the frustration that West Kendall residents experience during their daily commutes, we cannot afford any traffic solution that sacrifices a critical $16 billion federal-state water infrastructure partnership and with it, the region’s economic future,” Rubio wrote.
Gimenez, who has repeatedly said the highway would not harm restoration efforts while remaining vague on the details, agreed. Sort of. In his response, Gimenez said the county would buy land in the project footprint to trade for state and federally-owned land needed to construct the highway. What’s not specified is how much, or whether it totals what’s needed for the entire buffer zone.
His office did not provide a response to a request for clarification Wednesday evening, but Rubio’s office said it will be working with state and federal agencies to “inform the county’s acquisition efforts.”
The Everglades project in question was originally planned as a four-foot deep reservoir to store water. But federal and state engineers abandoned the idea after determining South Florida’s porous limestone would leak. They instead came up with a concept for a canal and pumps that would recharge the basin while preventing water from leaking to the east. Disappearing wetlands have become increasingly critical to South Florida’s water supply in the face of rising sea levels and rising temperatures. The National Academies of Sciences has also said fixing the Everglades could require more water than originally calculated.
Water management district officials said buying land would certainly make finishing the project easier. But they have not yet determined how much land needs to be purchased or identified its exact location, said Stephen Collins, who oversees real estate for the district.
They have also not designed it or included it in the schedule of Everglades projects mapped out by the district and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The soonest it could be added would be next fall, said district spokesman Randy Smith.
“No one knows what the heck that means,” said Everglades Foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg. “Having language with a lot of verbiage that’s not specific, or says how it’s going to protect the Everglades, that’s why folks are concerned.”
In letters this week, the Foundation, along with Audubon Florida, the Sierra Club, 1000 Friends of Florida and half dozen more groups including developers asked commissioners to postpone their decision until details could be ironed out.
“I still don’t know where the county’s acre figure came from in terms of identifying exactly how much and where land acquisition needs to happen to support, and not compromise the restoration plans,” attorney Richard Grosso, who’s representing several groups, wrote in an email. “All of that is separate from the basic flawed approach of building yet another car-oriented highway to meet transportation needs in the era of climate and sea level rise sustainability requirements.”
The groups said they’d been told commissioners wouldn’t vote on the measure until October, giving them time to prepare a transportation study looking at alternatives.
Some data has been collected, based on information obtained from MDX after they filed a public records lawsuit, and sent to commissioners Wednesday. But much of that information still needs to be analyzed, said Marta Viciedo, co-director of the Transit Alliance.
“We’re taking things into consideration like providing solutions that would not be extraordinarily costly and would be far less than the nearly $1 billion this extension would cost,” she said.
The Bird Drive Basin sits outside the urban development boundary and was targeted for preservation decades ago. In addition to sensitive wetlands that provide habitat for wildlife, including several rare and endangered species, it helps recharge drinking water supplies and fight back saltwater intrusion. No environmental study has been done to determine what impact the highway would have.
“Forty days from now we’ll have a new administration in Tallahassee, a new governing board at the water management district, new leadership at the Corps,” Eikenberg said. “MDX should table the item and the County Commission should agree. Let’s have this new administration, all these new leaders, and have an open, transparent process.”