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Raising Flood-Prone Roads Has Angered Miami Beach Residents. Experts Say They Need To Go Higher

Premature cracking on a recently installed road on De Lido Island in Miami Beach
A photo taken in October 2018 shows premature cracking on a recently installed road on De Lido Island in Miami Beach. ALEX HARRIS/MIAMI HERALD

Experts are once again telling Miami Beach to raise its roads against the threat of rising seas, this time even higher. And once again, residents are pushing back hard.

City-hired consultants told residents Tuesday night that under their new calculations, emergency roads would have to be elevated even higher than the city previously called for, but residential roads could stay lower than originally planned.

The response from Miami Beach residents in attendance? A resounding, ‘no way.’

Ever since the city decided to address sea level rise with road elevation, residents have fought back. They point to water overflowing from higher roads onto their property, insurance snafus and multi-year construction times. But expert after expert has told the city that to save itself from climate change, the roads must come up. And the longer the city waits, the more expensive and difficult it will be.

“Every day that you wait, sea level rise is going to continue to go up,” said Laurens van der Tak, part of the team from Jacobs Engineering presenting the project Tuesday night. “The number of roads that are going to be flooded at a more frequent rate will go up.”

At stake is the city’s ability to survive climate change, both the two feet of sea rise expected by 2060 and the potential loss of property value in risky coastal areas like Miami Beach.

Those in favor of road raising say the city has to continue its much-lauded adaptation program so that it can keep insurance rates down and city credit ratings up, as well as convince the rest of the world that Miami Beach will continue to exist as an investment and vacation destination in 50 years.

“We have to keep going. We have to protect people’s property values. That is an imperative,” said John Aleman, a former Miami Beach commissioner who supports the city’s plan. “We can adapt. We know what to do. We have been told by numerous third party experts what to do. We have time, but we have to do it. And the clock is ticking.”

Road raising critics, like current Commissioner Mark Samuelian, worry that the raised roads cause more problems than they solve for private property, which could lead to a decline in values.

“To some extent, road raising on a city-wide basis looks like a solution trying to find a problem,” he said. “I worry more that we’ll raise the roads too high prematurely and damage the fabric of our community and property value of our community. You can always go back and raise the roads.”

The city’s original 2014 strategy, of raising all roads to at least 3.7 feet, came from adding up the average King Tide height experienced in the city, 1.7 feet, with one foot of sea rise in the next 30 years and one foot of road material.

Jacobs was tasked with coming up with a better method of choosing a road height and a formula for choosing which neighborhood roads to fix first. The city’s previous way of selecting projects led one neighborhood to schism into opposing homeowners associations for and against road raising.

The new method is more flexible. It calls for different types of roads within the city to be elevated to different standards. Emergency roads, used for evacuations, should only have a 10 percent chance of flooding in a given year at the end of its 30-year life. Major roads, like Washington Avenue, should have a 20 percent chance.

Residential roads would have a 50 percent chance of flooding per year. That keeps the roads lower in the short run but means that the city would build roads that are expected to flood every other year by 2050.

If each of those roads were built in 2020, by Jacobs’ projections the emergency roads would have to be elevated to 4.8 ft, major roads would be at 3.6 feet and residential roads would be at 3 feet. But if the bottom of the road is in danger of flooding at any of these heights, then the city would choose a higher standard of 3.9 feet.

There’s no breakdown of how many of each category of road exists within the city, so it’s hard to know if the overall impact would be higher roads with the new Jacobs calculation.

“Some will be higher and some won’t,” Jacobs Project Manager Matt Alvarez told the Miami Herald. “I don’t think we’re seeing a big difference.”

Jacobs used NOAA’s intermediate high and high sea level rise curves, the two higher projections used by the Southeast Florida Climate Compact and adopted by the city. By 2050, they predict 1.3 and 1.8 feet of sea rise, respectively.

Because sea rise is expected to happen faster as time goes on, Jacobs pointed out that the city’s hesitance to commit to projects raises the price down the road. Van der Tak showed how an emergency road built in 2020 would have to be elevated to 4.8 feet, but if it were built in 2030, the street would have to be raised to 5.7 feet.

“If you delay a project starting by 10 years, look at those curves. They’re all creeping up,” he said. “The longer you wait the more it’s going to cost to protect your infrastructure in the long term.”

Rising seas equal higher groundwater levels, which eat away at the bottom of roads. In spots where the city installed pumps and pipes without elevating the road, like lower North Bay Road and spots in the Venetian Isles, there’s premature cracking in the roads.

“We believe that the usable life of the roads is being diminished significantly,” David Martinez, the city’s capital improvements director, told a city board Tuesday.

When the Florida Department of Transportation came in to fix up a part of Alton Road last year, the agency did not significantly raise the road. It used a different, more expensive, type of material underneath the road designed to protect it from rising salt water. Jacobs plans to recommend that Miami Beach use this new “black base” material for all future roads.

The city’s road raising work has been plagued with stumbles since it began. In Sunset Harbour, the first neighborhood to get the elevated roads treatment, residents at first said they didn’t want generators because of the noise and ugly look. Then a storm knocked out the power and flooded businesses, which now sit two feet below the higher roads.

Sardinia, an Italian restaurant, filed a claim with its flood insurance to cover the costs, but it was initially denied. His insurer, the National Flood Insurance Program, called his restaurant a basement due to the higher roads. But 14 months later, after much lobbying from the city, the NFIP reversed course and paid the claim.

Since then, the city said it isn’t aware of any other homes or businesses that have faced insurance issues with the raised roads.

The city’s first foray into single-family home neighborhoods, on Palm and Hibiscus Island, suffered from delays and cost overruns. And the higher streets caused problems. Residents complained of water pooling in their yards, steep slopes from the road to their driveway and garages rendered inaccessible.

The city’s answer to the newfound puddles was city storm drains installed on properties lower than the crown of the road. But Miami Beach didn’t get the proper permits from the county, slowing down the project again and drawing the eye of the city’s inspector general. His report on the city’s missteps should be done by March.

The vast majority of residents have yet to sign off to allow the city to harmonize their yards with the newly raised roads.

The city says its work has saved Sunset Harbour from 60 tidal floods so far, and that since the roads were raised on Palm and Hibiscus, there’s been no major flooding.

Despite the lengthy construction process and many complications for homeowners, the board chair of the Palm Hibiscus Star Islands Association called the higher roads a “prudent and good decision,” in a letter to the city manager.

“Once our project is finally completed we remain confident that our Islands will be significantly more resilient for the future while protecting our property values and our waterfront environment,” wrote Ian Kaplan.