Critics Say A Highway Across Everglades Won't Make Traffic Better. Now, A Judge Agrees

Mar 30, 2020

A controversial extension to State Road 836/Dolphin Expressway across Everglades wetlands and protected farm fields would do little to fix crippling congestion in parts of Miami-Dade County, an administrative law judge said Monday.

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In a nearly 60-page order, Administrative Judge Suzanne Van Wyk concluded the 13-mile extension could even make traffic worse.

“Commuters will drive 13 miles, outside of the [urban development boundary], through active agricultural lands, through environmentally-sensitive lands, and through the West Wellfield, only to connect with the existing expressway operating at an [level of service] lower than it operates at today,” Van Wyk wrote.

The ruling followed a two-week hearing in July that produced a 12-volume transcript covering testimony from opposing experts. Among the experts for the county was former planning chief Mark Woerner, who surprised attorneys by contradicting transportation officials' claims about commute time. Woerner estimated Kendall commuters would shave just six minutes off downtown commutes.

County officials argued a highway outside the urban development boundary, pictured here along SW 157th Avenue, was not development. An administrative law judge called the contention untenable.
Credit Pedro Portal / Miami Herald

"Overall, the [county] study supports a finding of minimally increased mobility," Van Wyk wrote, citing numbers that showed less than half the roads in West Kendall would have improved levels of service.

After WLRN posted a story on the testimony, Mayor Carlos Giminez, who made the highway a priority for his final term in office, issued a press release calling the station’s reporting erroneous and claiming the report spread misinformation that was picked up by the Miami Herald.

The highway’s opponents called the Monday ruling a rare victory for environmentalists and land planners who fight sprawl.

“She made it clear that the whole reason you claim to be doing this just doesn't pan out, based on the evidence,” said attorney Richard Grosso. “The ruling went directly to the heart of the claim.”

In response to a request for an interview, assistant county attorney Dennis Kerbel said the county was reviewing the order and exploring options.

The extension, dubbed the Kendall Parkway, was first pitched in 2012 and picked up speed in 2018 when Gimenez championed it after taking a seat on the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority board. MDX fought for public support with community meetings and a campaign-style website, that asked readers to “imagine the possibilities."

“With the new Kendall Parkway, residents will access this new expressway within minutes of leaving their homes, significantly reducing their daily commute,” the website said.

While the solution wasn’t perfect, MDX officials said it relieved commute times for an area they said represents a staggering 70 percent of the county’s workforce.

The extension would have added a six-lane highway from Northwest 12th Street and 137th Avenue, where it ends now, across a protected wetland mitigation bank. The highway would then wind across the Bird Drive Basin, over wellfields and marshes intended for Everglades restoration projects, before shrinking to a four-lane highway at Southwest Eighth Street and 167th Avenue to connect with Southwest 136th Avenue in Kendall.

Conservationists, including Tropical Audubon, Friends of the Everglades and Hold the Line Coalition, weren’t convinced that commute times would be cut and argued the highway violated the county’s comprehensive land use plan that called for promoting more mass transit and less urban sprawl.

A highway, they said, also ran counter to the plan’s mission to protect shrinking wetlands and wellfields that are increasingly threatened by saltwater intrusion.

In October 2018, they joined local landowners in a legal challenge, saying the county and transportation planners failed to provide the actual data needed to pass the amendment.

In her ruling, Van Wyk said the environmentalists failed to prove the highway violated county conservation practices for wetlands. She did, however, side with them in ruling that the county provided no data showing that the plan would not hurt Everglades restoration efforts. That’s because when the South Florida Water Management District asked for more details after the county asked the agency to weigh in, the county never responded.

She also called the county’s contention that the highway was not development - and therefore did not violate rules for building outside the urban development boundary - an “untenable” position.

“This just shows how the county did not do its due diligence,” said Laura Reynolds, who represents the Hold the Line Coalition. “If you're trying to create density for transit, if you're trying to have a livable, walkable community, you don't do that by putting a six-lane highway all the way out west.

Van Wyk's ruling now goes to Gov. Ron DeSantis and the cabinet for a vote. Reynolds said she hopes it becomes the final chapter for the highway.

“It's too much of a risk to the Everglades to continue putting all of our toll money towards something like this,” she said. “We should be spending that money on improving our public transit system.”