Miami is a great place to throw away public money. This is spectacularly apparent to the 108,500 folks on the Dolphin Expressway who pass the new Marlins stadium every day. The cost to taxpayers on that one: $2.4 billion. We'll be paying it off for the next 40 years.
But at least million-dollar ball players will have somewhere to pitch and catch when the park is opened next year. There's far more taxpayer-funded, politically suspect stuff that's less visible.
Indeed, our leaders are nationally renowned innovators when it comes to building expensive, lamebrained monuments to irrelevance. There's a kiddie park in east Kendall that no one can park near. Or how about the nine-mile bicycle path between downtown and South Miami that almost no one rides on? Hey, what about that two-story landmark in Hialeah that you can't even walk inside because it has no rooms. Or the new $51 million cultural arts center that just opened in Cutler Bay? It's just 30 minutes from a relatively new performing arts center that cost a cool half-billion.
Don't the guys who fund this stuff realize unemployment is at a record high, our homes are worth half what they were just a few years ago, and governments are laying off cops and firefighters?
What are they? Dumb?
To assess their level of ignorance, New Times rounded up six prominent critics and asked them to name the worst examples of public works projects that serve little or no purpose. We'll guide readers through the genesis of these taxpayer-funded catastrophes and describe how much money has been flushed down the commode. We've also invited online readers to submit picks for worst government-funded endeavors at riptidemiami.com. Now join us on a ride through the fruits of your tax dollars.
Year built: 1984
What's dumb about it: Throws good money after bad.
Why it was built: To create the illusion that Miami is friendly to pedestrians and cyclists.
It's afternoon rush hour this past October 28. We count three people traveling on the 27-year-old, nine-mile strip of pavement known as the M-Path, which runs mostly along busy South Dixie Highway, from the mouth of the Miami River to Red Road. There's one guy on a royal-blue Schwinn near the Coconut Grove Metrorail station and a woman pushing a stroller with a baby at the Douglas Road station. Although the M-Path was designed with cyclists and pedestrians in mind, most days you'd be hard-pressed to find either. That's because of heavy vehicular traffic and a gauntlet of 21 dangerous intersections. There aren't even signs warning drivers to slow down or stop at crosswalks.
Most cyclists avoid the M-Path. "Last time I was on it was three months ago," Miami Bike Scene blogger Rydel Deed says. "On days you ride the M-Path, you can't let your guard down. The M-Path sucks."
Transit Miami blogger Tony Garcia, another critic, says the M-Path shows that planners give priority to motorists. "Our transportation system tends to be mediocre when it comes to all other modes besides cars." The path could be great for nonmotorists, but "it seems like it goes nowhere," he says.
Now transportation officials are wasting $4.5 million more. They are building a pedestrian bridge that will link the M-Path at Red Road to the Dadeland North Metrorail station and the South Dade Trail, a million-dollar, 20-mile urban path to Florida City. The bridge is slated to open in December.
Wrong solution, Deed says. Try crosswalks. "At the very least, paint the crosswalks green so people in cars can see there is a path in front of them," he suggests. "That is something that is so inexpensive to do. I'd rather have that than spend millions on a bridge."
Marc Sarnoff's Traffic Circle
Year built: 2007
What's dumb about it: It's designed so poorly that school buses can't navigate it without backing up at least twice.
Why it was built: A city commissioner's self-serving pet project.
In 2001, Marc Sarnoff was president of the Center Coconut Grove Homeowners Association. He complained to city and county road planners that he needed a circle to slow traffic in front of his two houses. Their response: The four-way stop at Virginia Street and Shipping Avenue was doing a fine job. Six years later, newly elected Commissioner Sarnoff made the circle one of his top priorities.
He was required to gather signatures from two-thirds of the residents on Shipping and Virginia. But that proved too difficult, so Sarnoff found an end run: Mary Conway, who at the time was Miami's chief of operations. In sworn testimony in an unrelated criminal probe, Conway said Sarnoff was "always supportive" and had once offered her a job on his staff. Perhaps to show her appreciation, she tacked funding for the traffic circle onto an unrelated street-closure project in 2007 without obtaining the signatures. Even worse, the money came from a sales tax meant to improve public transportation.
Michelle Niemeyer, a lawyer who ran against Sarnoff and lost in the most recent election, says the traffic circle serves no purpose other than to enhance the values of the commissioner's homes. "He doesn't have trucks going by there anymore," Niemeyer says, noting the circle is too small for the intersection. "As soon as they drew the outline of where the circle was going, I knew there wasn't enough room for it," she says. "Now that it is finally built, it is even more obvious. It even feels tight going around in my little car."
Hialeah Landmark and Fountain
Year built: 2005
What's dumb about it: You can't enter this building because it serves no other purpose than being a six-figure backdrop for a fountain.
Why it was built: Longtime Mayor Raul Martinez wanted a monument celebrating his power.
During the '80s and '90s, a coral rock fountain on a grassy patch at SE Fourth Street and Okeechobee Road was a rallying point for Hialeah political candidates. Signs for council contenders Jimmy Gunn and Silvio Cardoso as well as the city's then-on-the-rise mayor, Raul Martinez, littered the city-owned property, which is conveniently located at a major entrance to Hialeah. On weekends, Martinez, his allies, and their opponents would stand in front of the fountain and wave to passing, honking motorists. "In 1983, this was the place to be," Martinez says. "It was a prime corner." The site's political history gave el alcalde (now in a runoff to regain his job) the excuse to erect an expensive monument to greet residents and visitors entering La Ciudad Que Progresa.
Today, driving west on Okeechobee Road, you can't miss the two-story pale-yellow structure. The Mediterranean-style building, which features two sentry towers and a stone fountain, is an oddity among the rows of low-rent motels and warehouses. It is a gargantuan reminder of the generosity of Hialeah taxpayers. In the original budget, the city figured $20,000 was enough to cover the railings and other metal work, and $23,010 would buy all the stucco needed for construction. Wrong. The city council had to approve an extra $12,700 to finish the structure. Add expenses beyond materials, and the project cost more than $400,000.
When the plaza was completed six years ago, Martinez hailed it as a monument to the diversity of Hialeah's Cuban residents, from recently arrived balseros to older exiles. "We are proud of the city of Hialeah," he said, "and we sometimes tend to forget that." Yet the plaza is no visitor attraction. There are no sidewalks that invite folks to walk up to the structure to take pictures. There is no parking either. You can't even enter to enjoy the view from the second-floor terrace. It is a six-figure waste of taxpayer money brought to you by the city's once and future ruler.
Miami Gardens Park-and-Ride Lot
Year built: 2011
Cost: $1.8 million
What's dumb about it: Motorists rarely park at the lot to ride a Metrobus.
Why it was built: To persuade drivers to abandon their cars for the public transit system.
It's a balmy morning this past November 1. Bernardo Rodriguez peddles a red BMX bicycle on busy NW 73rd Avenue at Miami Gardens Drive past a chainlink fence with a banner that reads, "Park & Ride Lot now open, serving bus routes 73, 99, 183, and 286." One sedan, a truck, and a rusty station wagon are the only vehicles in the 150-space lot.
"Nobody here," he says. "Ever." During an hour that New Times spends at the lot during rush hour, a total of four people show up.
In 2006, taxpayers shelled out $1.8 million for the two-acre lot. It was supposed to persuade neighbors in this moderately affluent suburban neighborhood to abandon their vehicles and ride public transit to Aventura or Dadeland. A new express bus could even take them to the Palmetto Metrorail station or southwest Broward County.
It took five years to complete the project. Since July, when it opened, the lot has been virtually empty. The $1.8 million provides for an average of 36 riders per day, county records show. That's about $72 per day in fares, meaning it will take somewhere around 70 years to repay the expense, even if you don't account for the cost of buses. And that express bus to Broward? Killed due to budget cuts.
"It just went up, out of the blue," says Barbara Hagen, a 66-year-old Country Club of Miami homeowner. "The only people I have seen parking there go to the IHOP next to it." She and several neighbors protested the county's use of the two acres for a parking lot when the issue arose in 2006. "The transit department assured us the lot was going to serve the area near I-75 that was being developed," she says. "If they had express buses going to the airport and seaport in Fort Lauderdale or going to Naples, the lot would make sense. That would be revolutionary. But they don't."
Miami-Dade Transit spokeswoman Karla Damien explains it took five years to complete the lot because the county was required to get approval from Florida Power & Light to build on top of underground electrical utility equipment as well as near power lines.
Indeed, the Miami Gardens lot is the second-worst performing of 11 park-and-ride bus facilities that the transit agency operates. Thirty-six riders board buses here each day compared to the 2,107 who use the Golden Glades Interchange lot, nine miles away. The agency does not break down how many of those riders actually arrive in a vehicle. The worst one, by the way, is located at Kendall Drive and SW 150th Avenue, with only 15 riders a day.
The Miami Gardens spot could be a park or maybe used for YMCA parking overflow. "Right now, it's useless," Hagen says.
Golden Glades Flyover
Year built: 1995
Cost: $50 million
What's dumb about it: You pay five bucks in tolls to be stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic with a view of the Miami and Aventura skylines.
Why it was built: For carpoolers. But really, does South Florida have any?
Throughout the '80s, local and state transportation experts fiddled with plans to rebuild the Golden Glades Interchange, which creates a traffic bottleneck from the bowels of Mordor as thousands of drivers attempt to enter Florida's Turnpike, the Palmetto Expressway, and I-95. Originally, the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) proposed replacing the winding loops of the Golden Glades with a five-level interchange. But because of the $534 million price tag, that plan has been collecting dust for more than three decades. Instead, the FDOT paid $23,000 per yard — yes, per yard — to build a temporary Band-Aid: a 94-foot-high, mile-long, two-lane bridge on I-95 for carpoolers.
When the flyover finally opened in 1995 after two years of construction, South Florida carpoolers rejoiced. They zoomed across the bridge, laughing at the poor suckers driving alone in rush-hour traffic. Yet a transportation spokesman named David Fierro told reporters the project in the near future was "not going to be able to handle all the traffic."
Then in 2008, the FDOT came up with the bright idea of spending another $122 million to restripe the high-occupancy-vehicle lanes into exclusive toll lanes, allegedly to further limit the number of drivers. Yet motorists in these lanes often find themselves moving slower than fellow travelers who aren't paying tools. Last year, commuters complained to the Miami Herald they were shelling out $4.50 or more for the privilege of being immobile on the flyover. One driver described the experience as "infuriating" and "grossly unfair." The I-95 express lanes are now carrying 50,000 to 60,000 cars a day, according to figures released by the FDOT last year. Officials acknowledge that travel slows when more cars are crammed into these lanes.
South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center
Year built: 2011
Cost: $51 million
What's dumb about it: The county already spent $483 million to build a performing arts center in downtown Miami.
Why it was built: All politics is local — and much of it is foolish.
In 1993, one year after Hurricane Andrew leveled South Miami-Dade, county Commissioner Dennis Moss insisted construction of a South Dade cultural center was an essential part of his blueprint to stimulate economic development in his storm-ravaged district.
Soon, the county hired Arquitectonica International, one of the nation's best-known design firms, to devise a plan for the performance hall and activity center. "This is a very exciting project," principal Bernardo Fort-Brescia gushed. "For us to do a building that represents culture in our community, it's a real treat." Yippee for you, Bernardo! Pretty sure the $2.9 million Arquitectonica made on the deal was a huge incentive too.
When Moss introduced his plan, the center would cost taxpayers $31 million. But the county didn't have the funding in place. Officials were more focused on the project that would become the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, which was plagued by cost overruns and delays. Finally, in late 2007, the county hired a contractor, the Tower Group, to build the South Dade center. By then, the project's cost had almost doubled to $51 million. Worse, an investigation in 2009 by the Miami-Dade Inspector General concluded Tower was responsible for $2.3 million in cost overruns and delays. The builder blamed the county's Cultural Affairs Department, which oversaw construction. Tower and county officials are still haggling over repayment.
The 966-seat South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center finally had a soft opening this past April. County commissioners allocated $1.25 million to the center's programming budget this year. But the place will have a tough time filling seats. For the past year, the Arsht Center has sold only 82 percent and 66 percent of its tickets for the Broadway in Miami series and Arsht-exclusive events, respectively. Resident companies such as the Miami City Ballet, Florida Grand Opera, and New World Symphony have fared worse, selling 65 percent of their tickets, a decrease from the 2006 season, when the Arsht Center opened. During that time, the Concert Association of Florida also went bankrupt. To operate, the Arsht drains more than $8 million annually from Miami-Dade's coffers.
Watchdog Report publisher Dan Ricker, who has monitored the construction and operation of both cultural facilities, believes it will be impossible for the county to continue to subsidize both venues. "In a down economy, will there be money for programming all the smaller cultural centers and the mother ship in downtown Miami?" Ricker ponders. "I'm worried."
Year built: 2011
What's dumb about it: It's a playground that parents can't drive their kids to.
Why it was built: To get rid of a trash dump.
The county's parks and recreation department decided in 2009 to spruce up a less-than-one-acre lot after complaints from Carla Ascencio-Savola, who at the time was chairwoman of the community council that represents East Kendall. "It had become an eyesore," Ascencio-Savola says, adding that residents began using the property as a dump after Hurricane Wilma in 2005. So she persuaded Carlos Gimenez, then a commissioner, to allocate funds for a small park.
With $350,000 in taxpayer cash, the county spared no expense in transforming the lot into Sunkist Park, a pristine green space at 8401 SW 64th St. in a residential neighborhood. The landscape is filled with pine trees and sabal palms, as well as other shrubs meant to replicate the pine rockland you can find for free a few miles to the west in the Everglades. A rubber-padded playground and swing set share space with a winding concrete walkway. The county even enlisted noted Miami landscape architect Leticia Fernandez-Beraud and biologists from Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden to help design the place.
Yet for all the money spent, no one thought about including parking. So parents have to haul in their brood on foot. On a recent Saturday afternoon, prime playtime, the park was empty during a 30-minute visit. From the street, it looks like a nice, tree-lined sidewalk.
South Miami resident Rob Pierre believes the county should have simply cleared the garbage. "They call Sunkist 'the last vestige of the pineland preserve,'" Pierre scoffs. "It's all hogwash. If the county wanted to build a playground for kids, a sandbox would have sufficed."
Year built: Currently under construction
Cost: $1 billion and counting
What's dumb about it: It will wreak havoc on
Biscayne Bay and the MacArthur Causeway.
Why it was built: To mitigate container truck traffic.
The premise behind the project doesn't hold water. Since the '80s, city, county, and state leaders have touted the tunnel as the best way to remove big-rig trucks entering the Port of Miami from the streets of downtown Miami. Despite warnings from skeptical politicians such as county Commissioner Joe Martinez that the tunnel could become Miami's version of the Big Dig, the Boston tunnel project that cost five times the original price, it is moving at full-bore. But consider: The Port of Miami has lost cargo and cruise business to Port Everglades in Broward. Truck traffic at Miami's port has dropped from 32,000 vehicles in 1991 to 19,000 today. Last year, truckers told New Times the problem is not the streets of downtown Miami, but the slow entrance to the port's heavily secured docks.
Alejandro Arrieta, who owns Delta Line International, a shipping line that has been in business for a decade, said delays have more do to with Homeland Security screenings and union labor than traffic. "We all know the Port of Miami is the most inefficient on the East Coast," Arrieta lamented. "That's not going to change with the tunnel."
The tunnel project never would have gotten off the ground if it weren't for President Barack Obama. The commander in chief's economic stimulus package provided the final $100 million to get the tunnel, um, off the ground. Construction began this past August when the $45 million boring machine nicknamed "Harriet" began digging through the limestone beneath the MacArthur Causeway. The tunnel should really be renamed the Great Make Work Act of 2011. County leaders boast it will create 400 jobs during its construction.
Environmental activist Alan Farago says the project isn't worth the damage it will cause to nearby coral and the Biscayne Aquifer. He notes the dredging company is using unidentified polymers to fortify the crumbly limestone. "How much polymer is going to be used?" Farago wonders. "What is the effect of unleashing carcinogens into the bay? If there are toxic agents being introduced, who is going to stop the project?"
Nobody is going to stop it, no matter what the cost, dummy!