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Gov. DeSantis And Florida Cabinet To Decide Ruling On Highway Across Everglades Wetlands

On June 15, Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida Cabinet are scheduled to review an administrative law judge's March 2020 ruling that found the Dolphin Expressway violated Miami-Dade's comprehensive plan. Cabinet aides will meet on the matter Wednesday.

A 13-mile highway expansion over Everglades wetlands that an administrative law judge found violated Miami-Dade County’s comprehensive plan is back under review.

Staff for Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Cabinet will hold a meeting Wednesday to review the ruling ahead of a June 15 Cabinet session, when DeSantis and the three-member Cabinet are scheduled to vote on whether to uphold the judge’s decision or reject it.

While Cabinet aides may make recommendations on matters, an agenda for the upcoming vote so far includes background and a timeline, but no guidance.

The $650 million extension to the 836 was pitched as a solution to gridlock in heavily congested southwest Miami-Dade and heavily promoted on a campaign-style web site set up by the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority before the governor disbanded it.

Miami Republican Congressman Carlos Gimenez made the extension a priority during his final term as Miami-Dade mayor.

But the project was widely panned by mobility advocates and environmentalists who say it could interfere with Everglades restoration efforts. The Everglades Foundation called the Dolphin Expressway expansion plan the "No Way Expressway."

“It's really not impacting the problem that some are concerned about, as it pertains to transportation,” said Eric Eikenberg, CEO of the Foundation. “More importantly, you have an Everglades project that was authorized by Congress.”

Wetlands in the Bird Drive basin, which the highway would cross, would be used to store and clean water needed to restore Biscayne Bay. Flood control and development cut off the bay from freshwater that once flowed across transverse glades from the Everglades.
Biscayne Bay Southeast Everglades Ecosystem Restoration Project Delivery Team /
Wetlands in the Bird Drive basin, which the highway would cross, would be used to store and clean water needed to restore Biscayne Bay. Flood control and development cut off the bay from freshwater that once flowed across transverse glades from the Everglades.

When he requested a hearing in November, Gimenez said he continues to “strongly” support the project and “will continue my steadfast support as I assume the role of Congressman.”

In a letter to DeSantis’s chief of staff, he wrote: “This project will reduce driver commutes by two to five hours per week and also provide an alternate hurricane evacuation route.”

But in her ruling, Judge Suzanne Van Wyk found the proposal did not comply with the county’s comprehensive plan to protect wetlands, farm fields and water supplies, and could make traffic worse. A county expert also testified that the highway would likely cut downtown commutes by just six minutes.

“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.

Since the ruling, the wetlands in the Bird Drive Basin — between Krome Avenue and Southwest 157th Avenue, south of the Tamiami Trail — have also become more critical to an Everglades restoration project aimed at fixing Biscayne Bay.

“We know [the basin] provides water to not only Biscayne Bay, but also to Taylor Slough,” said Laura Reynolds, who represents the town of Cutler Bay on the federal and local planning team for the project. “We did modeling and if you remove it, then you don't meet the water needs of the project.”

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is now in the midst of a three-year planning effort for the project, which was included in the final Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan authorized by Congress in 2000. Worsening conditions in the bay that have wiped out seagrass. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also warned that the bay could be at a tipping point, shifting from clear waters and grassy meadows to murky brown water crowded with weedy macro algae.

The basin, Reynolds said, is “so critical because Biscayne Bay doesn't have enough water to meet the salinity needs. And of course, it's not clean enough. Most of our water sources have a lot of nutrients associated with it. So we need as much wetland space as we can to help clean that water source.”

Mobility advocates also warned that the highway could worsen sprawl.

“It's just a vicious circle,” said Derrick Holmes, campaign coordinator for Transit Alliance Miami. “Until we can give people the infrastructure to try something else and understand how that may be a better way for them to get around, we're going to be stuck in these cycles where people are going to ask for things that are going to put them in more traffic instead of asking for things that will put them in a totally different mobility ecosystem.”

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Jenny Staletovich has been a journalist working in Florida for nearly 20 years.
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