95 Express: Pay more, get injured, wait in traffic

Rory Santana, the happy, overworked troll of Miami-Dade County's highways, bursts out of his office in the boxy, drab Traffic Management Center in Doral. "Talk about luck!" he hollers to a visiting reporter, his voice shrill with excitement. "We've reached our maximum rate!"

Bearded and bespectacled in a rumpled button-down shirt, Santana surveys the scene through the large window in his office.

The expansive room outside resembles a NASA control center, with rows of office chairs and computers facing a giant mosaic of screens — all of them filled with live footage of clogged bumper-to-bumper traffic.

Santana is studying Interstate 95's 16 miles of tolled express lanes, which move an average of 57,000 drivers a weekday. It's rush hour Monday afternoon, and Miami's monster highway's northbound lanes are besieged by motorists headed to watch the Dolphins take on — and lose to — the New England Patriots. With the express lanes charging drivers based on congestion, the thousands of poor souls foolish enough to use it now will be billed the approximate price of a stadium beer.

"They're paying $7," marvels Santana, the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) district manager overseeing the lanes, "to park on the highway."

This gruff weekend fisherman knows the express lanes — derisively branded the "Lexus lanes" — aren't the darling of the local populace. "When I go to happy hour," Santana admits, "I don't tell people what I do."

The FDOT company line, of course, is quite different. Spokesperson Alicia Torrez gushes that the express lanes are "smarter, safer, and more efficient" than a normal highway.

But those ripped-from-a-pamphlet boasts, it turns out, are as flimsy as the plastic express-lane partitions Miami drivers regularly mow down with impunity. There's no evidence that the 95 Express project has made the highway safer. In fact, it appears the opposite is true, with the FDOT — which has raked in $28 million in tolls since launching the program in August 2008 — turning I-95 into what one state trooper called a "demolition derby."

More fundamentally, the express lanes, soon to be more than doubled in length with an $85 million expansion into Broward County, invites urban sprawl and is of little use to the county paying for it. "The program totally screws over Miami-Dade drivers," Transit Miami blogger Gabriel Lopez-Bernal says. "It's completely misguided."

In 2007, Miami was one of five "urban partners" to share a billion dollars from the federal government to introduce "congestion pricing" toll systems. The others were Minneapolis/St. Paul, New York City, San Francisco, and Seattle.

In most of those cities, the notion of paying to use roads that were previously free rankled the citizenry. In the Bay Area, politicians for three years battled opposition to bridge congestion tolls before finally forcing through the program — decried by the San Francisco Chronicle as "unpopular" — last year. And in New York City, a similar plan tolling entry to Manhattan was squashed after Brooklyn and Queens councilpeople protested it would turn their boroughs into isolated, urban Icelands.

In the other four potential cities, congestion pricing models were all designed to pry people from their cars so they'd use public transportation. But what the FDOT cooked up — no-exit lanes that speed motorists between downtown and the suburbs — only jams more vehicles onto the highway at a faster rate.

The money raised through tolls doesn't go toward any other form of mass transportation as it does elsewhere. It pays only for upkeep and police on the lanes, as well as the 95 Express bus, which carries an estimated 1,200 commuters a weekday — a tiny fraction of the 300,000 drivers who use the same stretch of highway.

It doesn't add up to a forward-thinking model, says Transit Miami's Lopez-Bernal: "All it's doing is encouraging people to commute from the burbs. That's really the last thing Miami needs."

Perhaps it's appropriate, then, that the inception of 95 Express was two weeks of chaotic and litigation-spawning bumper-crumpling.

The FDOT was intent on becoming the first agency to implement congestion pricing. In July 2008, it planted plastic partitions along the northbound, eight-mile stretch of I-95 — consistently shown by studies to be the most dangerous road in the nation. They did it in the "dead of night," says then-Florida Highway Patrol spokesperson Pat Santangelo, without warning the public.

The few road signs informing motorists of the new partitions, Santangelo recalls, were full of misinformation and typos. Drivers became trapped in the lanes for miles as they sped past exits to Little Haiti, North Miami, and North Miami Beach. They turned the partitions into a high-speed slalom.

"What happened was they put those poles up and they didn't tell anybody," says Santangelo, who is now a spokesperson for Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado. "Immediately the next morning, a big truck overturned. That's how the day began."

Santangelo rushed to do what the FDOT hadn't — getting booked on Kreyol-language radio to warn Haitian drivers of the dangerous lanes. But the chaos continued for weeks, and Homestead mom Melvina Durden still has the scars and the hobble to show for it.

On July 11, 2008, Durden was on her day off from her cashier job at Pollo Tropical, riding in the passenger seat of her friend Melody's Ford Taurus as they headed to North Miami in the express lanes. Melody realized she was too far to the left at the last minute and swerved through the lane dividers to make the NW 135th Street exit. The car flipped, and they ended up in a mangled pile of metal against the wall on the other side of the highway. "I thought for sure I was going to die," Durden says. "They were the most horrifying moments of my life."

The two friends survived, though Durden's left leg was shattered and is now covered in jagged scars. Her arms still bear the marks made by shards of glass. At 35 years old, she moves like an arthritic old lady. She even lost her job at the chicken spot. "Melvina used to be the life of the party," her sister Charlene says. "Not no more."

Durden filed suit against the FDOT and the company that installed the partitions, Munilla Construction, last year.

At least one other driver has sued the FDOT over an accident in 95 Express's chaotic early days. Three days after Durden's disaster, a 66-year-old Haitian-American woman named Clara Chery was driving her Toyota RAV4 with her aunt and nephew when she "found herself captive" in the lane, according to a 2010 lawsuit. When she slowed to follow a string of cars weaving out of the lane, she was rear-ended by a tractor-trailer. Chery, who says she suffered permanent injuries, claimed in the lawsuit that the FDOT failed to "maintain the roadway in a reasonably safe condition."

Her attorney, David Hagen, says, "Everyone in that car is fearful of driving the freeway now."

A contract filed as evidence in Durden's suit explains why 95 Express felt like a rush job: It was a rush job. As part of the $121 million agreement with Munilla, the FDOT paid an additional $50,000 for each day the lanes were completed ahead of deadline. "It's a sad example of putting profit over public safety," says Durden's attorney, Spencer Aronfeld. (Munilla Construction's president, George Munilla, did not return a message left seeking comment.)

Even Rory Santana, the candid FDOT district manager, admits "mistakes were made" in introducing the express lanes. He recalls watching cars "swerve all over the highway" on the giant screen in front of his office.

Department spokesperson Alicia Torrez, who declined to comment specifically about the pending litigation, says drivers have come to understand and respect the partitions — and the potential $100 fine for ignoring them.

The FDOT often touts that the 95 Express lanes, by reducing "friction" — cars disrupting the flow of traffic by slowing or stopping — have made the highway safer.

But don't ask for a statistical basis for the claim that 95 Express has reduced accidents. "We don't have any numbers to back that up," Torrez says bluntly. Neither the FDOT nor the Florida Highway Patrol keeps accident stats for the express lanes.

There are telling figures, though. Late every Wednesday night and early Thursday morning, an FDOT truck trawls I-95, replacing the plastic partitions — at a cost of $29 a pop — bulldozed by swerving drivers the week before.

In the total stretch of 16 miles north and south, the workers replace an average of 600 demolished pylons a week.

The FDOT trucks should be mighty busy by 2013, when the 95 Express lanes are set to stretch all the way to Davie Boulevard.

But don't bring your "Lexus lanes" crap to district manager Santana, who's tired of hearing it. "You try moving 300,000 cars on one of the country's biggest highways when you've got idiot drivers swerving all over the place and cutting people off," he rants in his Doral office.

"Sorry," he adds with an exasperated grin. "Now you're getting me fired up."

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Gus Garcia-Roberts