Transportation agency endorses skyway over 11-mile stretch of Tamiami Trail
By Dan Dolan
Despite objections by the US Army Corps of Engineers, Miami-Dade's Metropolitan Planning Organization last week lined up behind a plan to replace a key section of Tamiami Trail with an 11-mile-long, $300 million elevated skyway that would help restore natural water flow through the environmentally sensitive Everglades.
After an appeal from business people, local governments and environmentalists, Metropolitan Planning Organization board members led by North Miami Mayor Kevin A. Burns told staffers to look for ways to fund the project, which would replace existing federal plans to build a $128 million three-mile long bridge in the heart of the Everglades and widen another eight miles of Tamiami Trail beginning just west of Krome Avenue.
Sierra Club representative Jonathan Ullman, who heads a coalition pushing for the skyway, told the planning organization the Army Corp's project doesn't do enough to restore Everglades water flow, which scientists say is vital to improving South Florida's aquifer and fragile eco-systems.
"Tamiami Trail, which was built in 1928, acts as a giant dam that traps water on the north side," Mr. Ullman said. "That has resulted in major changes to the environment on both sides of the roadway. It is strangling Florida Bay."
Mr. Ullman said the Army's plan won't fully fix the dam effect since eight miles of the roadway will still be blocking water flow. A skyway, which is essentially a road built on concrete stilts, would allow water to flow naturally, he said.
But Bryce McKoy, the Army's Tamiami Trail project manager, said a skyway would cost too much money. He said the feds considered the project but rejected it for financial reasons.
"There's no doubt the skyway would have many environmental benefits, but we don't have the money to do it," Mr. McKoy said. "We had to pick an alternative that was within our budget."
Mr. McKoy said the Army intends to push ahead with its project no matter what action the Metropolitan Planning Organization takes in the immediate future.
"We expect construction to begin in March 2008. We should be done in about 36 months," Mr. McKoy said. "We're building to get the best flow we can based on our budget. This is just one phase of a massive Everglades restoration project. But the other phases can't start until this one is done."
At this point, Mr. McKoy said, switching to a skyway would delay all phases of Everglades restoration five years or more — and squander millions already spent on design, engineering studies and other planning. He said it would take a special act of Congress to provide funding for a skyway and authorize a change in plans.
That's exactly what the Metropolitan Planning Organization hopes to accomplish. Panel members said more than money is at stake.
"We can't let cost be the only factor in this decision," Mr. Burns said. "We have to look at what will be best for south Florida a hundred years from now, not just how much we're going to pay. A skyway is the most environmentally sound plan. We should pursue it aggressively."
But panel members stopped short of saying local and county government should pick up the tab. They asked staffers to find state and federal funding. They said they would formally petition Congress to approve a skyway at the panel's meeting next month.
Mr. Ullman said his coalition's research shows a scenic skyway would increase tourism and generate 6,100 new jobs in addition to helping improve the environment.