Despite assurances, extend 836 past UDB and development into fragile land will follow. That shouldn’t happen.

Miami Herald Editorial Board

A rush hour view of the 836 expressway.
A rush hour view of the 836 expressway. MIAMI HERALD

If, if, if, if, if. There are just too many of them, too much uncertainty for the Miami-Dade County Commission to give preliminary approval Wednesday to what would be the crown jewel in Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s tenure — extending State Road 836 to the southwest part of the county.

The residents there desperately need traffic relief. Their commutes to downtown Miami can be a torturous two-hour drive one way. Their pain is the result of decades of anything-goes planning and zoning, mass transit that is wholly inadequate and the lack of jobs where these people live. That’s because the county continues to let job-creating industrial zones be converted to tracts of housing.

The county’s laxness got these residents into this pickle. We’re not yet convinced that the $650 million highway extension, especially if one section goes almost to the edge of the Everglades, is going to get them out. Despite all of the administration’s assurances, there is enough uncertainty to give commissioners pause. In fact, the proposal was rejected two times in committee.

Commissioners don’t have all of the information needed to take a responsible vote. The exact route of this expansion project is still up in the air. It would be irresponsible to approve this highway without knowing exactly what they are voting for. The consequences will be significant.

Both proposed roadways would cross the Urban Development Boundary — the so-far sacrosanct line that has kept development from sprawling even further west — into wetlands and threatening our drinking water. Gimenez’s more-palatable proposal, hugs the UDB. The more-onerous alternative, understandably sought by residents on the county’s western edges, would fork further west into fragile land. Despite assurances to the contrary, we’re sure development will follow.

The UDB has held, so far. The Editorial Board, for years, has been a voice for keeping in place. But the pressure to move it west, and to build, is enormous. The proposal will decimate 300 acres of farmland, something the county’s own master plan seeks to protect, with, perhaps 3,000 acres potentially vulnerable to development. Some large tracts of prime agricultural land to the west is leased to farmers, but owned by real estate companies.

Environmental concerns loom large. MDX says that it will acquire land to mitigate the loss of agricultural lands. It also would have to purchase and restore environmentally sensitive lands for preservation “in perpetuity.” But building beyond the UDB could compromise flood protection and Everglades-restoration projects.

The Miami-Dade Expressway Authority, financing the project with tolls, says the actual route will be set by the time the project comes before the commission for a final vote in the fall. Why make a decision before the route is solidified? Plus, the whole thing overshadows the highly touted SMART Plan for mass transit.

We commend the mayor for building in a battery of safeguards that he says will prevent development west of the UDB: “Future development applications would be considered as if the parkway were not there, compelling developers to compensate for their traffic impact, either monetarily or by building roadway improvements,” he wrote in a recent Herald oped. Waiving this rule would require a two-thirds vote by the County Commission. This is the same requirement that under the county charter applies to expanding the UDB.

Here’s our bottom line: It’s a matter of trust. We are clear that the mayor wants to improve the quality of life for residents in the southwest. We trust the thought that has gone into making the proposed highway compatible with mass transit. And we get the current traffic nightmare residents endure.

But what we don’t trust is the system. County residents hoping for transit solutions have been here before. They’ve been baited and switched in the past. They’ve had promises derailed. The misuse of monies from the People’s Transportation Plan still stings.

The effort to build an 836 extension will continue long past Mayor Gimenez’s term. And while he might keep the process on the straight and narrow, we have to take the long view. The mayor’s commitment to holding the UDB might not be taken up by subsequent commissions or his successor.

Commissioners should reject the westernmost highway proposal outright. It will not be a “road to nowhere.” Once the UDB is breached, it will, eventually, become the road to acres and acres of homesteads.

If commissioners want to do what’s best for the county, including traffic-weary residents in the southwest, they will do the most responsible thing and wait until they have all the definitive information required. If.