There's a new wrinkle in the ongoing debate over whether to build a highway across protected wetlands in Miami-Dade County: an iffy savings on commute times.
County transportation planners pitched the extension as much-needed relief for drivers in West Kendall. But on the last day of a two-week hearing over whether the highway violates county growth plans, an expert witness for the county - former planning chief Mark Woerner - said downtown commute times for West Kendall residents would drop by only 5 percent. That's six minutes off a two-hour drive.
"I had not heard anyone actually explain that this entire time," said attorney Richard Grosso, who is representing Tropical Audubon and West Kendall resident Michelle Garcia. "That's a pretty important fact to understand about whether it makes sense to build this highway in the Everglades."
Tropical Audubon and Garcia, along with Green City developer Limonar, are challenging the highway, arguing it violates the county's Comprehensive Development Master Plan. That document details policies for managing growth, protecting resources like wetlands and agriculture, ensuring the Everglades gets restored and dealing with traffic. County commissioners voted to amend the plan to make way for the highway last year.
For much of the hearing, attorneys opposing the highway argued over the lack of data and analysis done before county commissioners approved the plan. Woerner, who retired in 2017 after 29 years with the county, testified that amendments can be made without such details. That information would more likely be needed for permits, he said, and called what was included "extremely adequate."
"It rivals what you might find in a...development of regional impact," he said, referring to major projects that impact human health, safety and welfare.
In addition, the county insisted on a pact that sets out stricter protections for wetlands and growth with the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority, Woerner said. That agreement was made before Gov. Ron DeSantis abolished MDX earlier this month after local lawmakers complained the agency wields too much power. A new agency is set to take over, but MDX is trying to have the law thrown out. It's not clear what happens with the pact.
Among the protections is a measure that prohibits developers from using the highway to meet traffic requirements. But when questioned by Limonar attorney John Lukacs, Woerner said that did not apply to projects south of 152nd, outside a county study area. Woerner also said planning staff never saw the need for the extension when he ran the department.
The location of the extension has come under the most scrutiny by environmentalists and other government agencies. It would cross protected wetlands in a basin used to recharge drinking water supplies and land needed for Everglades restoration.
The basin contains a wellfield that is one of the few not covered by roads, houses and other development. The county growth plan says it should be protected because of that uniqueness and because county wellfields are increasingly under threat from growing demand and sea rise. The county is already contemplating shutting down a Homestead wellfield threatened by saltwater intrusion.
Despite those threats, the county has never finalized a protection plan for the wellfield and instead operates it under an interim plan. County attorney Dennis Kerbel said during the hearing that interim plan is more strict than other county wellfield plans. But no analysis of impacts to the wellfield were ever done because a road is not considered a prohibited use in wellfields, Wilbur Mayorga, chief of the county's division of environmental monitoring and restoration, testified.
Even if the amendment withstands the challenge, hurdles remain including obtaining permits to build on protected wetlands.
On Friday, the South Florida Water Management District sent a letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers with concerns after governing board members said last month they wanted the highway closely monitored.
"The district is keenly interested," district director Drew Bartlett wrote, asking Col. Andrew Kelly to make sure Corps wetlands regulators check with engineers overseeing Everglades restoration.
Attorneys Friday agreed to submit closing arguments in writing to administrative law Judge Suzanne Van Wyk. Van Wyk will then make a recommendation to DeSantis and his cabinet, Grosso said.