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At the urging of the Dade County Metropolitan Planning Organization, the area's lead transportation-planning agency, the FDOT targeted the MacArthur as a priority project, in 1984 began the preliminary engineering, and last year took bids on the $11.8 million project. (Federal sources fund about 70 percent of the project, the state covers the remaining 30 percent.) The resulting design for the 1.9-mile road emphasizes speed and safety, not aesthetics. In general the revamped causeway will be much wider than before. Instead of three eleven-foot-wide lanes running in both directions, each side of the revamped MacArthur will boast two twelve-foot lanes, a fourteen-foot lane, and an eight-foot "refuge lane" that will accommodate bicycles.
Amid all this asphalt, though, a ridiculously meager amount of real estate remains for foliage. The construction plans call for a median averaging about twenty feet wide along most of the roadway; beside that, there will be virtually nothing. On the north bank, beyond a metal guardrail, landscapers will have about a foot and a half to work with before the ground gives way to riprap (a bank of boulders that provide a foundation and protection for the roadway). On the south side, there will be an unsightly 32-inch cement wall - known as a Jersey barrier - and no soil. Geoffrey Ferrell, a town planner for the Miami architecture firm Duany & Plater-Zyberk, says the design leaves a landscaping task akin to "decorating a concrete pillbox."
FDOT officials are full of explanations for skimping on the turf. To begin with, they say, state safety regulations govern road specifications such as barriers, and lane and median widths. The barriers prevent errant cars from plunging into the bay, and the twenty-foot-wide median allows for a "clear recovery zone," in which cars knocked from the road can regain control and, theoretically, re-enter the flow of traffic. "What was there before provided very little clear-recovery zone in the median, and nothing on the shoulder," says FDOT spokesman David Fierro. "Our whole motivation today is to bring in current safety standards."
Several landscape architects criticize the inclusion of a twenty-foot median at the expense of landscaping on the shoulders. But John Martinez, FDOT district consultant management engineer, says minimum FDOT safety standards require at least a 19.5-foot median for a roadway with the traffic speed and volume of the MacArthur. If FDOT decided to lower the speed limit from the planned 45 mph to, say 35 or 40 mph, then state formulas would allow for a narrower causeway.
In addition, DOT officials explain, high costs and environmental concerns prevented engineers from widening the causeway any further. To the south of the causeway, the water depth in the shipping channel quickly drops to about 30 feet. So for every two-foot expansion, builders must add hundreds of thousands of cubic feet of soil, at extraordinary costs. To the north lie fragile sea grass beds. "Widening the roadway requires permits and a lot of negotiations with the Army Corps of Engineers, the Florida Department of Environmental Regulation, local DERM [Department of Environmental Resources Management], the National Marine Fisheries Service," groans Joe Gomez, FDOT district construction engineer. "You have to minimize the encroachment into the waterway, and we have encroached as far as we can go while minimizing the environmental impact."
Regardless of how much area remains for landscaping, plans for the causeway foliage are alarmingly undeveloped. FDOT waited until after a private contractor had drawn the roadway plans before seeking any landscape expertise. FDOT spokesman Fierro says the department rarely, if ever, consults landscape architects until after engineers have completed a roadway's design. If so, he says, it is "only if we envision that landscaping is a considerable part of the project, that it would be a major part of the work."
In the case of the MacArthur design, road planners didn't even consult with a full-time professional landscape architect. They dumped the plans on the desk of a Miami FDOT environmental specialist who also had some training in landscape design. The specialist, Scott Neitzel, drew a draft of a possible landscaping scheme, suggesting several tree and plant species. "It's tentative," says David Fierro. "It's a conceptual plan that we developed as a pretty standard course. We're at a point where we can put aside the plan that we have and see if we can incorporate [other ideas] into the final plan."
Neitzel resigned from FDOT this past October and moved to Houston, Texas, leaving no one on staff with professional landscape training. And since Neitzel's departure, FDOT has done nothing to advance the landscaping designs. Fierro, though, says the department is planning to advertise for a landscape consultant who would work on the MacArthur Causeway and succeeding FDOT projects.
FDOT has tentatively budgeted $386,000 for replanting the causeway but has only committed $12,000 per year to maintaining the landscape. In recent years, the state has paid Metro-Dade to maintain the causeway, but annual maintenance costs haven't exceeded $12,000 and have covered little more than periodic mowing and occasional trash pickup, Fierro says. An elaborate landscaping design would require a more regular and intensive schedule of mowing, trimming, weeding, and litter removal. "You run into a situation where you have to tell somebody in Hialeah that you can't fix a pothole because you had to prune a coconut palm instead," Fierro says. Hence, FDOT has sought financial support from the City of Miami Beach and Metro-Dade.