Wheeling and Dealing

U.S. Rep. William Lehman snags $2.5 million in federal money for bike paths in his Dade district - and cyclists aren't taking it sitting down

If there was ever a test of your sobriety, manual dexterity, and trust in others, it's launching yourself onto Dade's unsympathetic roadways astride a bicycle. As any cyclist new to Miami finds out soon enough, this ain't Holland. In fact, one need only look at the area's fatality and accident statistics to see just how punishing Dade County traffic is to our two-wheeling brethren. In 1990, according to the Florida Department of Transportation, 935 cyclists were injured in bike accidents; 25 cyclists were sent to the big velodrome in the sky. Dade's per capita rates are among the highest in the state, and Florida leads the nation by far.

But while many Miamians have ditched their bikes for the car, there remains a cadre of cycling advocates determined to convince the citizenry and officialdom that two wheels are better than four. Or, at least, that two wheels are equal to four.

Usually this appeal got lost in the roar of vehicular traffic clogging the thoroughfares of Dade County, Tallahassee, and Washington, D.C. However, the effort recently found a powerful supporter in Congress whose voice rose above the din. Democratic U.S. Rep. William Lehman, using his influence as chairman of the transportation subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, helped win more than $2.5 million in federal money to fund the development of three bikeway projects in North Dade. The appropriations were part of the 1992 Transportation Appropriation Bill, signed into law this past October, and include $800,000 for a North Miami bike plan, $850,000 for a route in Aventura, and $865,000 for a North Miami Beach proposal. The two cities and the county will furnish twenty percent in matching funds.

The three-pronged proposal apparently began with an alert lobbyist for the City of North Miami. "The state revenue situation has turned sour, so I had to come up with a way to find some other special projects for these governmental agencies," says lobbyist Ron Book. "In talking to them [North Miami, North Miami Beach, and Dade County officials] about what projects were needed, each one had a plan for a bike path, and that idea stuck out." That Lehman was selected as the courier to wheel the proposals to Washington is no small irony: All three projects are neatly tucked within his congressional district.

The Aventura route, consisting of six miles of bike lanes and bike paths, circles around Turnberry Isle Country Club and Golf Course, runs west along Aventura Boulevard to Biscayne Boulevard, south to Miami Gardens Drive, east to Dixie Highway, and south to 164th Street. There it picks up the North Miami Beach route, which consists of a landscaped, 2.5-mile path and along the north side of Snake Creek Canal, running from Dixie Highway north to Miami Gardens Drive. The North Miami plan - an 11.2-mile latticework of bike lanes - extends from NW 145th Street to NW 120th Street and runs the width of the city.

While joyous over the federal grants, Dade's leading cycling advocates are annoyed by a serious flaw in the project: the entire North Miami Beach route. "It seems a terrible waste of the taxpayers' dollars," says Sam Pierson, president of the Dade County Bicycling Coalition, a citizens' advisory group. "Once again city government has come up with a plan that doesn't fit the needs of the people."

The path satisfies no commuting needs, cycling advocates complain, and it serves a limited recreational purpose. "It doesn't go anywhere, it dead-ends," explains a frustrated Jeffrey Hunter, the Dade County Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator. "This is transportation money - it should meet a transportation need. As far as recreation, its opportunities are limited: You go down and you have to turn right around."

The proposed path also wastefully duplicates an already existing bikeway on the other side of the canal. "It's more geared to beautifying the city," asserts Victor Gallo, a retired engineer and a member of the Bicycle/Pedestrian Advisory Committee, a citizens' group that advises the County Commission. "All the landscaping isn't going to do anything for the bicyclists. It'll be nice to have people walk and look at shrubbery, but with that money, we would have more benefits."

Hunter suggests that North Miami Beach should instead improve the existing bikeway along the canal, spending only a fraction of the federal allocation, and use the rest of the money to build a bikeways system, similar to North Miami's, linking schools to libraries to parks to shopping areas to senior-citizen centers.

In its proposal, North Miami Beach claims the new canal pathway would link up with 8.5 miles of existing bike paths in the city, providing access to parks and city facilities. Hunter, who surveyed the county for a detailed map of existing bikeways, says he knows of only about three miles of bikeways in North Miami Beach. Those, he says, probably don't even meet current state standards. (North Miami Beach officials referred all inquiries regarding the Snake Creek Canal bikeway to councilman Jule Littman, who explained he didn't give interviews over the phone on "something so big.")

John D'Amanda, North Miami's director of engineering and planning, also registered his displeasure with the North Miami Beach plan, and suggested that the final design for the three proposals be left to the county. "Now that we got the grant," he says, "I've been trying to get Dade County to put all the plans together and come up with something that's good for everyone."

Hunter, who worked closely with the North Miami and Aventura planners, harbors hope that Littman and his North Miami Beach engineers will reconsider their plan. "Maybe they don't know bicycle transportation," he ventures. "But don't use bicyclists to get money and then not meet their needs. We have a hard enough fight already.

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