Dark Passage

Which will kill you first: Commuting regularly across I-395 in the pitch blackness, or holding your breath until the DOT fixes the streetlights?

Legend has it that years ago the engineer who designed I-95's Golden Glades interchange was hunted down at his modest apartment late at night by a horde of angry citizens carrying torches and sawed-off tailpipes. Roused from his sleep, the man was strapped behind the wheel of a failing VW Bug and forced to drive back and forth through the interchange using fourth gear only. He gradually went insane, stalled as he was trying to merge into traffic on southbound 95, and was fatally rear-ended by an eighteen-wheeler. His corpse was deposited unceremoniously on the top of Mount Trashmore, where vultures picked the bones clean.

Many familiar with the Golden Glades -- arguably Dade's worst driving nightmare -- have said the engineer got exactly what he deserved. Now Miami's frustrated drivers want to know who to blame for the hell that I-395 has recently become. The 1.2-mile stretch connecting I-95 and State Road 836 with the west bridge of the MacArthur Causeway has been without streetlights for more than four months. Already unpleasant by day, after dusk the roadway becomes a harrowing, darkened speedway and one of Dade's more challenging tests of sobriety and manual dexterity.

The Florida Department of Transportation, which maintains lighting on Florida's interstate expressways, is quick to point the bureaucratic finger at the homeless, blaming the blackout on vandalism. Spokesman David Fierro asserts that during the spring, people living under the interchange in downtown Miami repeatedly tampered with the electrical systems, stealing copper wiring from the light poles to sell as scrap. Mechanics, Fierro says, returned time and again to fix the damage.

At some point during the summer, the department decided not to repair the system until the homeless were cleared out from under the downtown Miami overpass. "Until that situation got fixed, that wasn't going to be a high priority for us," Fierro explains. "Over the last year there's been a lot of pronouncements from the city and the county to do something about the homeless. Our position is, let's see if these folks are successful. We're not going to keep throwing that money down a hole."

And that was a decision made before the hurricane. Now the problem of I-395 is even further down the priority list, below such jobs as the replacement of the lighting systems along U.S. 1 in South Dade. Never mind that the roadway, according to Fierro, is among the six busiest in Dade. (According to the most recent DOT statistics, 75 crashes occurred on I-395 during 1991; spokesmen for the DOT and the Florida Highway Patrol did not know whether the number of accidents on the roadway had increased since the system of 119 light poles was last vandalized.)

Fierro says the DOT is exploring various tamper-proof electrical systems, some of which are already employed along several roads, including the Julia Tuttle Causeway and State Road 112. He says that according to one contractor's estimates, replacement of the I-395 streetlight system would cost about $12,000. Jorge Fernandez, DOT's district contract engineer, says it would be even more expensive to illuminate specific clusters of lights in the meantime.

Because no one knows when the city is going to resolve the problem of the homeless living under I-395, Fierro says he can't predict when mechanics will finally fix the lighting problem. "We would probably expedite that if this county or the city or the social services were able to resolve that [homeless] issue," he says.

But when repair crews finally get around to fixing the lights, they may find more problems than they anticipated. Fierro says no one has studied the system since the hurricane to assess how much additional damage it might have suffered from the storm.

The Department of Transportation is quick to point the bureaucratic finger at the homeless, blaming the blackout on vandalism.

 
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