Venetian Causeway Closing Could Spell More Bicycle Deaths

Around 10:30 p.m. on a Monday late last month, Eber Vasquez pedaled north from his apartment on NE 23rd Street and onto the Julia Tuttle Causeway. The 25-year-old, clean-cut Guatemalan immigrant with a neat goatee was still in his work clothes from the day’s painting job. Across his back was a black one-strap backpack. Inside were his ID card, some bank cards and cash, and a small Spanish-language hymnbook.

Vasquez rode his roommate’s black-and-orange mountain bike in the narrow shoulder that doubles as the Tuttle’s bike lane. He passed the causeway’s first light pole, then the second, where the bridge rises to 50 feet or so above Biscayne Bay. Behind him, a 2006 silver Buick Lacrosse, cut off by a racing car, suddenly swerved right to avoid a collision. The Buick lost control, slamming into the causeway’s right cement wall. Then it slammed into Vasquez from behind. The impact launched both rider and bicycle over the rail and into the black night.

More than two hours later, emergency divers recovered the bent bike from the bay. They also found Vasquez. At 1 a.m., after pulling him from the dark water, a Fire Rescue lieutenant pronounced the young man dead. “Car versus bicycle,” Joe Sanchez, a spokesman for Florida Highway Patrol, said later. “Usually bicycles don’t win.”

For Miami, the deadliest urban area for bicyclists in the nation’s deadliest state, Vasquez’s death was only the latest in a string of cyclist casualties. But the next nine months could pose the biggest risk yet: On June 1, the county will shut down the Venetian Causeway for a nine-month, $12.4 million renovation. The thousands of bicyclists who use the low-speed bridge between Miami and Miami Beach will have to take the same road where Vasquez was killed, and nothing separates bikes from car traffic that typically clocks freeway speeds.

“Oh my God,” says Maria Luisa de Jesus Hoover, a local cycling organizer. “If the city doesn’t do anything now, it’s going to be a disaster.”

In 2014, 15 bicyclists were killed while riding in Miami-Dade and nearly 1,000 were involved in crashes, according to data compiled by Fort Myers’ News-Press. Both numbers were by far the highest among all counties in Florida — a state that has often ranked as the deadliest in the country for bicyclists. Among those killed in the past few years was 44-year-old Christophe Le Canne, who was hit from behind by a drunk driver and killed on the Bear Cut Bridge. And Aaron Cohen, a triathlete and father of two young children, who died of head injuries after being hit by a young man on his way home from partying. Both drivers fled the scene and were later arrested.

“Oh my God,” says Maria Luisa de Jesus Hoover, a local cycling organizer. “If the city doesn’t do anything now, it’s going to be a disaster.”

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In late 2014, a state law named for Cohen went into effect. It introduced harsher penalties for motorists who flee the site of a fatal crash. The law won praise from advocates but failed to prevent more deadly collisions: This past January, Walter Reyes, a 50-year-old CFO of a local real estate company, was riding with a cycling partner in Key Biscayne at 5:30 on a Wednesday morning when a young man driving home from a night partying looked down at his iPhone to change a song. He swerved his Volkswagen Jetta, then smashed into Reyes and his riding partner, attorney Henry Hernandez. The young man initially fled the scene. Hernandez was rushed to Mercy Hospital in serious condition. Reyes was pronounced dead.

Once again, Miami’s tight-knit cycling community was reeling — and outraged at a lack of improved road safety conditions despite repeated official promises. “We don’t have any bike lanes or safety around here,” says Ron Cater, owner of the Team Iguana Sports bike shop at 73rd Street in Miami Beach. “People could care less, man. That’s just the way it is.”

For decades, the best — for many, the only — way for bicyclists and pedestrians to cross between Miami and South Beach has been the Venetian Causeway, where bike lanes are good and the speed limit is no higher than 30. But that road was built in 1925 and designed to last only 50 years or so. Back in the 1990s, it was closed multiple times when parts collapsed near the Miami Herald building. Last March, a Miami-Dade metrobus knocked a three-foot hole in the top deck of its western section. The bus got stuck, prompting a traffic nightmare and panic among passengers. In the following weeks, county inspectors determined repair jobs were no longer feasible — 730 feet of entirely new bridge was needed. The effort would take nine months.

“The bridge will be completely closed to vehicles, pedestrians, and cyclists,” Francisco Calderon, a spokesperson for the county’s public works department, said last October, when the county announced that work on the causeway would begin this spring. No alternative was announced for the pedestrians and cyclists who would no longer be able to use the bridge. Last week, just days ahead of the June 1 closing, Antonio Cotarelo, the county’s deputy director for public works, suggested public buses could carry bikes across or that cyclists could try the Tuttle: “There are bicycle lanes that the DOT has implemented... so that is one alternative that [bicyclists] could use.”

Asked if the Tuttle’s bike lanes are really safe, Cotarelo said they meet Miami-Dade County standards. “There’s always a risk when you’re having, obviously, vehicles that are several tons... driving next to a bicycle,” he said, adding that collisions like the one that killed Vasquez could happen anywhere. “I don’t want to sound insensitive, but it is an alternative that bicyclists have.”

But for the past several months, advocates have been urging another temporary alternative route, like a water taxi, or at least some dramatically increased safety measures — a barrier separating bike lanes, reduced speed limits, more signs about cyclists. The pleas haven’t worked.

“The county is like, ‘Well, those aren’t our bridges,” says Collin Worth, the bicycle coordinator for the City of Miami, referencing the Florida Department of Transportation’s jurisdiction over the two major causeways. “The state’s like, ‘Well, what are we supposed to do?’?”

Miami-Dade has promised to improve street sweeping on the MacArthur Causeway to help with the very real problem of trash and other debris clogging that expressway’s narrow shoulder. But cyclists are emphatic that much more is needed. “It’s just crazy,” says de Jesus Hoover. “They’ve been aware of this for many months now, and we have yet to hear of any alternate route.”

Without something like new barriers, the Tuttle is absolutely not an option. “I rode it once,” de Jesus Hoover says. “And I never did it again.”

Of course, any alternative would be too late to save Vasquez, whose identity is first being reported by New Times. In Guatemala, the slight young man was mostly raised by his grandparents, according to Ana Tijerina, his roommate in Miami. About four years ago, his girlfriend gave birth to a daughter, and Vasquez resolved to head north and earn money. He made his way first to California and then about two years ago to Miami, where he eventually found a home with Tijerina, a Mexican native, and three other young Guatemalans. Their modest three-bedroom apartment at NE 23rd Street and Biscayne Boulevard functioned like a family home: The young immigrants often shared rice and beans or homemade tortillas. And they looked out for one another, often helping with errands or adding money to one another’s international calling cards.

Vasquez found work doing construction and painting. He didn’t earn much, but after his $400 rent payment, he sent most of what was left to Guatemala to support his grandparents and daughter. After breaking up with the mother of his child, for a while he fell into a drinking spell, but about six months ago, he abruptly transformed, Tijerina says. He started visiting an evangelical church in West Palm Beach on weekends and cleaned up his appearance, trimming his hair and beard and dressing up when he wasn’t working. He often visited the bayfront or the beach to read his Bible and sing. That may have been where he was going that Monday night — Vasquez didn’t say.

On Tuesday morning, when Vasquez hadn’t returned home, his roommates at first joked that maybe he had found a new girlfriend. But when he didn’t answer any of their calls throughout the day they grew worried. Later someone in the house saw the TV newscast: images of emergency scuba divers and the Tuttle Causeway, the news of a young, unidentified bicyclist killed. Then came the damaged black and orange bike. Then Vasquez’s black backpack.

“Oh my God,” one roommate said.

“No, no, no!” Tijerina replied. “Don’t even say that.”

Tijerina and the others identified Vasquez’s body in the Medical Examiner’s Office. They called a cousin, who contacted other family members, including Vasquez’s mom. Members of the church in West Palm Beach arranged for a service. A check-cashing store in Kendall put out a donation box to help pay for Vasquez’s body to be returned to Guatemala.

On the Saturday after the collision, when the reality of her friend’s death was finally setting in, Tijerina and her young son walked along the Julia Tuttle Causeway. Between the second and third light posts, Tijerina laid down a bouquet of white roses. Her son put out a little stuffed animal dog. They said a prayer, then released a handful of white balloons.

Last week, more than 150 cyclists gathered around 6:30 p.m. in a sun-drenched parking lot at Crandon Marina, in Key Biscayne, for a group ride to honor those killed while cycling. After a few minutes of speeches, cycling organizer de Jesus Hoover took the microphone. She told the group to pedal out silently. “This is not a ride,” she said. “This is a funeral.”