Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
Days before a key vote, Miami-Dade transit advocates are rallying against a proposed interstate expansion.
There’s also the Dolphin Expressway, also known as State Road 836, a 15-mile, six-lane, tolled expressway that runs east to west through Miami-Dade County. Since 2014, local officials have been discussing a 13-mile, $650 million extension of 836 to serve the community of Kendall, a notoriously traffic-jammed part of the county. On Wednesday, commissioners will vote on whether to send the latest proposal for the “ Kendall Parkway” from the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority, which would manage the new road, up to Tallahassee for round one of state approval.
This draft offers two potential routes, both contentious. One is pressed against the county’s urban development boundary, which is designed to prevent further sprawl into the Everglades, the ultra-fragile wetland habitat and critical watershed. Many Kendall residents are supportive of that plan, expecting it to shorten their commutes, but don’t all love the idea of a multi-lane highway so close to their homes. So the MDX came up with a second proposal that sends the new road about a mile further west, outside the urban development boundary—and straight through what’s formally known as Bird Drive Basin, i.e., “the flowing heart of the Everglades’ famed River of Grass,” as the Miami Herald put it.
Smart-growth advocates and environmentalists are displeased with both ideas, which would seem to encourage growth ever closer to the imperiled Everglades. More lanes also won’t solve congestion, as a matter of science. Induced demand, as CityLab readers may know, is a bedrock principle of traffic engineering. Road space and peak-hour congestion have a one-to-one relationship on urban expressways; when one grows, so does the other. “Our traffic problems aren’t going to be solved by adding more highway and, by the way, paving over wetlands that are going to recharge our groundwater,” Celeste De Palma, the director of Everglades policy for Audubon Florida, told the Herald last week. “That just seems crazy.”
Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, an outspoken supporter of the Dolphin Expressway extension, disagrees. When one woman stood up at a public meeting in West Kendall on Monday to point out that induced demand is real, Gimenez reportedly responded, “That’s one of the dumbest things I’ve ever heard.” He has repeatedly fought efforts to expand transit across Miami-Dade County, despite running twice on pro-rail mayoral platforms. The regional Metrorail system is suffering from a shrunken budget, service cuts, and decaying rolling stock. Back in 2002, county voters approved a half-cent sales tax to pay for 88 more miles of track and 635 new buses. But instead of funding transit, that money has essentially turned into a slush fund for road projects, according to Streetsblog.
Meanwhile, Gimenez has become somewhat of an evangelist for autonomous vehicles, arguing that cheap and convenient on-demand rides will make transit a thing of the past. For a moment, it seemed as if Gimenez might get on board with “trackless trains,” (that is, autonomous buses), but it seems that time has passed. On Tuesday, responding to a tweet characterizing his remarks at the West Kendall meeting as an “attack,” Gimenez tweeted, “There has been no ‘attack’ ... simply [stating] facts.”
So what is the larger justification for more highway? According to TransitAlliance, a local transit advocacy group, it’s just what’s politically sexy. On Monday, the organization launched an online campaign against the Kendall Parkway plan at www.anothersexyhighway.com. It’s a parody of a dating-site profile, fake-hosted by “MDXXX.” Although you can’t swipe, you can scroll through “cards” that primp up the project’s flaws in tongue-in-cheek language. “While other cities invest in more transit, better transit, and free pre-school (yuck!), our toll money is designed to do one thing and one thing only—generate more toll money, for more sexy highways!” reads one. “Trapping everyone in cars forever means more traffic, and more tolls—it’s a win-win!” There’s even a sexy highway song that plays in the background.
You may remember TransitAlliance from other clever online campaigns in support of Miami-Dade riders. In February, they built a real-time Metrorail “audit” that displays trains that fail to arrive as scheduled. After that, they crafted a suite of data visualizations that showed the county’s “dismantling of the bus system.” Marta Viciedo, the co-director of TransitAlliance, said that there was so much wrong with the Dolphin Expressway extension proposal that it couldn’t be expressed forcefully enough with mere statistics. Her hope is that the somewhat clickbaity campaign will reach outside the usual choir of transit supporters and get more Miamians writing letters and making phone calls to elected officials protesting the extension before this vote (which won’t be a final decision) and potentially the next. “The idea was to do something a little more lighthearted and make fun of something that’s a little ridiculous to be happening in the first place,” she said.
When it comes to wildlife and development in Florida, those shots seem to come easily. The Sunshine State was declared a global biodiversity hotspot in 2016, with more endemic flora and fauna than anywhere on the North American coastal plain. Quite a lot of it endangered. One can suppose it’s an expression of local pride to slap the name of species on so many roads and highways. But what kind of pride names the asphalt after the animal whose habitat is getting paved over? It’s a bit like the highway version of housing developers who name their subdivisions after the natural features they’ve erased. Extended further, the Dolphin Expressway would look more like a trophy.