Rubio vows to fight highway after Miami-Dade backs away from buying Everglades land

Conflicts of the proposed Dolphin/836 Expressway extension with the Everglades restoration plan

Celeste De Palma, Director of Everglades Policy of Audubon Florida, talks about conflicts of the proposed Dolphin/836 Expressway extension
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Celeste De Palma, Director of Everglades Policy of Audubon Florida, talks about conflicts of the proposed Dolphin/836 Expressway extension

A potential deal that helped win approval for a controversial Miami-Dade highway across disappearing wetlands, and possibly revive a flagging Everglades project, appeared to fizzle Friday.

Sen. Marco Rubio vowed to continue opposing the extension of the 836/Dolphin Expressway when it became clear that transportation officials, despite a last-minute letter from Mayor Carlos Gimenez that seemed to agree with Rubio, would not meet his demand to purchase land for a wetlands restoration effort alongside the six-lane highway. The Miami-Dade Expressway Authority wants to buy only enough land to get the road built.

“I want to make it abundantly clear, having MDX buy only the amount of land needed for permits will not suffice,” Rubio said in a statement.

“I will do everything in my power to get federal agencies to reject this project,” he said, “if MDX fails to purchase all of the property needed for Everglades Restoration and swap it with current federal lands.”

wetlands at 157 and 8th street and bird drive basin.jpg
The Dolphin Expressway extension would cross protected protected wetlands between SW 157th Avenue and Krome Avenue. Miami Herald file

Leading up to the hearing, Rubio warned county officials he would fight the highway pitched as a solution to the crippling congestion in west Kendall if it interfered with Everglades work. The state’s water woes have taken center stage this year after a massive blue-green algae bloom across Lake Okeechobee began sliming rivers and a toxic red tide hit the Gulf Coast. Rising seas have also worsened coastal flooding and threatened saltwater intrusion in South Florida. Finding more places to clean and store water is considered a critical fix.

The highway would cross the county’s urban development boundary into protected wetlands that were once part of the Everglades Shark River Slough and targeted for a project to help freshen the shallow aquifer and move more freshwater south. The highway also cuts across state wetlands that are part of a decades-old preservation effort to make up for damage caused by rock mining. They also provide a buffer between marshes and development.

This week, Rubio sent Gimenez a letter agreeing to drop his opposition if the mayor, who chairs the MDX board and made the highway a priority for his last term, promised to buy the land to finish the Everglades project. Rubio’s staff estimates the land totals about 2,200 acres.

The Bird Drive Basin, which the highway will cross, was originally part of the Everglades Shark River Slough and includes wetlands targeted for an Everglades restoration project. Source: MDX

Gimenez appeared to accept in a response the night before the meeting.

“The biggest assurance for our residents lies in the interlocal agreement that your suggestions are helping to perfect,” Gimenez wrote in a letter that amended the agreement’s language, but did not specifically consent to purchasing all the land.

On Thursday, at the end of a daylong hearing, Gimenez assured Commissioner Rebeca Sosa that the highway could actually get the stalled project moving.

“We’re actually helping to move [the project] along because without MDX, I don’t know where the funding is, but they’ve been talking about this for 20 years,” he said.

But after the vote, Javier Rodriguez, MDX’s executive director, said the agency had not agreed to buy the land.

“It’s going to come down to a mitigation plan,” he said.

When asked about Rubio’s specific concerns Friday, Rodriguez was succinct, if not enlightening. “As agreed we will buy and swap all the land necessary to build the Kendall Parkway and assist in [the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan].”

Gimenez declined to comment.

For critics who have repeatedly complained about scarce details for the $1 billion project, the confusion and last-minute changes highlight their frustration. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection and South Florida Water Management District have also said MDX has failed to give them enough information.

“That doesn’t leave anybody feeling like they can trust the county,” said Celeste De Palma, Everglades policy director for Audubon Florida. “MDX‘s main purpose is to build a road, but the county, guys your mission is way broader. You shouldn’t just let MDX run the show.”

Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich