At a public hearing Thursday night on a proposal to extend the 836 expressway, Tim Hyman was especially direct about what he wants.
“Do it quicker,” he said of the plan to build the new highway. “We need the relief. We needed it years ago.”
Less than two minutes later, Kaatje Bernabei stood up and blasted the plan as irresponsible, citing the environment. “We have children in this room. We have grandchildren. One day they will ask you…'what have you done to save the planet?'”
So it went at the meeting to discuss the 14-mile extension of the 836/Dolphin Expressway to south Miami-Dade: nearly two dozen people either praised the plan as a necessary relief to congestion in west Kendall or denounced it as a threat to the Everglades and water supplies that would increase traffic and urban sprawl.
The forum in the gymnasium at Archbiship Coleman F. Carroll High School was an opportunity for residents to learn about the proposal. About 30 poster boards displayed drawings of the $1 billion route that will run south through wetlands and undeveloped farmland as its crosses the county’s urban development boundary. The Miami-Dade Expressway Authority has been pushing the plan for more than four years.
During the first half of the meeting, experts and representatives of the authority told attendees about the steps the county will take to mitigate any environmental harm. They went through the history of the project and why it’s necessary.
Proponents of the six-lane expressway, including Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, have pitched it as a future relief to endless traffic in one of the county’s western-most communities. The plan would give Kendall commuters the option of heading west and picking up a faster route north and east into the Miami area, instead of relying on local roads to get on the turnpike.
Residents like James Karnib did not need any convincing at the hearing. It’s overdue, he said, and development across the urban development boundary is inevitable.
“Population keeps increasing. We can’t increase population without access to the roadways,” Karnib said. “They have to create a reasonable flow. And I think that right now it has gotten to the point where it’s considered absolutely unreasonable."
But other residents and representatives of environmental organizations said the new road will threaten the Everglades and the Biscayne aquifer.
The expressway authority, known as MDX, says it will purchase and preserve wetlands to compensate for the wetlands the project will destroy. Still, extending the highway across the urban development boundary will set a precedent and naturally lead to more development around wetlands, said Matthew Schwartz, the executive director of the South Florida Wildlands Association. The wetlands are a natural filter that cleans groundwater and acts as a buffer against sea level rise, he said.
“New highways. More cars. More CO2,” he added, calling for improved mass transportation instead. “It’s just hard to believe that they’re going to dig their way out of the traffic problem they’ve created in South Florida with more highways.”
The proposal is on track to take effect after the County Commission voted in favor of it in September. MDX says existing toll dollars will fund the initial years of the project's construction with the rest of the funding coming from new tolls on the extension itself. The road is expected to generate $45 million in tolls a year.
Still, the extension must secure federal, state and local regulatory approvals. Sen. Marco Rubio has vowed to do everything in his power to convince federal agencies to reject the proposal. The expressway authority needs to acquire about 1,000 acres to complete the extension. Rubio wants the toll agency to purchase an additional 1,000 that will help in the federal government’s restoration of the Everglades.
Before the commission’s vote in favor of the plan, Gimenez—the chair of the MDX board—seemed to accept Rubio’s demands. But the expressway authority's director, Javier Rodriguez, has said the agency has not agreed to buy the extra land.