An Interstate 395 bridge over troubled waters

Miami Herald Editorial Board

First Place: A rendering of the winning proposed design for the I-395 bridge by Archer Western-de Moya Joint Venture.
First Place: A rendering of the winning proposed design for the I-395 bridge by Archer Western-de Moya Joint Venture.

Miami-Dade is getting a new bridge, one some county leaders have already described as a “bridge for the ages” or, at the very least, a signature bridge. For sure a bridge that will be here long after we’re gone.

But did we, the residents and taxpayers of Miami-Dade, have a fair say, or even a peek at the proposed designs for this potentially iconic Interstate 395 bridge marking the way to world-famous Miami Beach?

Not really, and that’s the problem. The selection of the winning design and contractor, far from transparent or inclusive, are already done deals — at least for now.

Some are charging voter maneuvering that diluted the power of the final approving aesthetic panel. Panel members increased from five to nine, and the approved design won by half a vote.

How is that possible?

The Florida Department of Transportation won’t even answer questions on its process. Dick Kane, the agency’s communications director, emailed the Editorial Board that a “cone of silence” issued on the project remains in effect. That’s ridiculous. FDOT should explain itself. It’s a contagious lack of transparency that FDOT seems to have caught from the state Legislature, which did too much of the public’s business behind closed doors.

This time, the rush to get something past residents is not just sneaky: In court, it represents the breach of a legal settlement reached in 2013 between the FDOT and the city of Miami. Miami attorney Mason Pertnoy, who helped craft the original agreement with FDOT, plans to push the point: “It’s not my concern which bridge is more pleasing, they have breached their agreement.”

FDOT had promised a special bridge, then reneged, saying only a segmental bridge would be built, with no regard to aesthetics. The city, with then-Miami Commissioner Marc Sarnoff in the lead, sued FDOT. The case was settled with an agreement to set up two five-member panels: an aesthetics panel with the power to vote on the final look of the bridge, and a technical panel, made up of FDOT personnel who would deal with logistics, but not vote on the final design.

But questionable shenanigans, unfortunately, reared up. In the end, the technical panel did vote, improving the odds for the winning side. “FDOT math,” said Sarnoff, who should be praised for stepping up to enforce the agreement even though he’s no longer a public servant.

This is an expensive, and long-lasting, bait and switch by FDOT, and it needs to be revisited.

Last week, FDOT, trying to save face, held a 90-minute public meeting. Those who came to speak about the flaws and benefits of the competing projects thought they would be heard. After they spoke, the state transportation panel listening — but without discussion — stuck with the controversial ranking to select a contractor and design.

The winner was a joint venture team led by Archer Western and the de Moya Group. But that was not the bridge preferred by the aesthetic panel. By a significant margin, the four-member panel preferred Fluor-Astaldi-MCM’s bridge — “a design consisting of two scissor-like support towers meant to resemble dancers cavorting before the adjacent Arsht Center for the Performing Arts,” as the Herald described it in a recent article.

Some might say this is really a backroom deal favoring one contractor over another. But the Editorial Board will concentrate only on the selection process. There is nothing muddled about this aspect of the story: FDOT pulled a fast one.