What is really happening with community input for the I-395 project - SaintPetersBlog

What is really happening with community input for the I-395 project

Bridges are about connections, hence the word “bridge.”

But a Miami-Dade plan to design a “signature bridge” — an $800 million proposal for rebuilding the I-395 overpass — is doing more to divide than connect.

Adding to the confusion is the Miami Herald, where some argue has been slanting coverage to favor one bidder over another on the Florida Department of Transportation project.

While the Herald has given significant coverage to the I-395 Signature Bridge Project — over 25 years in the making — many facts have not been reported correctly.

On May 16, the Herald’s Douglas Hanks reported that Miami-Dade officials were urging the FDOT to postpone the award of the I-395 project.

“Florida agreed to let local leaders help pick the design of a ‘signature bridge’ overpass by the Adrienne Arsht performing arts center,” Hanks writes, “but selected the proposal that received lower scores from the local panel.”

According to the Herald, Sally Heyman, who sponsored the resolution calling the FDOT to postpone handing winning bidder Archer Western the contract, arguing the state “should be more interested in hearing from the public.”

“They’re asking for the public input,” Heyman said. “Why not respect it?”

But that’s not quite accurate.

In 1996, after community opposition initially blocked the project, little attention had been paid to the adjoining Overtown neighborhood. By 2004, the project directive had changed to not only provide traffic solutions but also to promote the revitalization of surrounding communities, including Overtown, which surrounds the I-95/I-395 exchange.

After that, between 2004 and 2009, the FDOT conducted approximately 150 presentations, involving over 2000 community members — earning a national award just last year for its outstanding public input process on the project.

As a result, public support for the I-395 project rose from 20 percent to a high of 80 percent as of the official public hearing held Aug. 25, 2009.

The broader vision was for a signature bridge, reconnecting neighborhood streets and development of a green community space underneath the expressway.

FDOT continued to hold advisory meetings until 2013, with the formation of the local Aesthetics Steering Committee (ASC), with stakeholders taken from the County, City, FDOT, the Miami Downtown Development Authority, and the Performing Arts Center.

For the next two years, the ASC was the driving force behind the aesthetic review criteria of the request for proposal (RFP). In February 2016, the FDOT issued the RFP, which set off a so-called “cone of silence” to check possible influence and keep politics out of the selection process.

In August 2016, another local Aesthetic Review Committee, chaired by County Commissioner Audrey Edmonson, (on its own) approved 7 of 18 signature bridge design submissions.

Those designs would then be forwarded for scoring by the full selection committee — taking in account technical and aesthetic qualities, construction timetable and price.

Once again, the ASC added input and scored the visual elements of each design, with Edmonson eventually giving the winning design an “excellent” score.

In the process, the joint-venture team of Archer Western and the de Moya Group was ranked Best Valued Proposer. While the Herald incorrectly claims Archer Western was the lowest score, it was, in fact, ranked second in aesthetics out of four.

Also, the group came in first overall on technical design, as well as aesthetics, time to build and price.

With any aesthetic design, there will always be critics — everyone has an opinion — but that does not mean the process was “Jerry-rigged” to secure a “narrow win” as suggested in the Herald.

Local leaders had a seat at the table, and the overall best value bidder based on RFP scores was selected. It’s that simple.

After reviewing all the facts, any claim that community input was ignored is both false and disingenuous.

FDOT, spending as much as $800 million on the rebuild of I-395 — a combination of Federal and State dollars — allowed a committee of local officials set the aesthetics criteria, shortlist the designs and score final proposals.

One design winning over another is not due to a “lack” of local input, by any objective measure.

The I-395 project is a quarter century old, and it is a bridge in every sense of the word — connecting communities and varying interests.

It is time to put aside the petty differences, look to the future and fix the I-395 traffic mess.

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Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.
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