Five Reasons Miami-Dade's New 836 Expressway Extension Is an Awful Idea

If you polled 1,000 Miamians about what civic improvements they needed, almost none would say "new highways." Miami-Dade County already has tons of them. Traffic remains bad, and the metropolitan area continues sprawling toward the southwest like a malignant tumor.

But here we are: The county commission on Thursday approved a $650 million, 13-mile Dolphins Expressway extension tentatively named the "Kendall Parkway." It didn't matter how many urbanists, smart-planning activists, and environmentalists complained that building yet another highway will do nothing to alleviate Miami-Dade's traffic congestion and urban-sprawl woes. We're getting that highway, baby!

While the construction firms that pay for the campaigns of nearly every county commissioner are popping champagne bottles this weekend, allow us to reiterate why this idea sucks:

1. Actual data shows new highways don't fix traffic problems.

Yes, it seems like common sense that building more highways with more lanes would ease traffic jams. But scientists who have studied the problem for decades have found the opposite is true.

The idea, explained by two scientists in a seminal 2009 paper in the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, is called "induced demand." The scientists looked at the number of new roadways built in major U.S. cities over a 20-year period and the number of miles driven in that time, and they discovered something very weird.

“We found that there’s this perfect one-to-one relationship,” Matthew Turner, a University of Toronto scientist who co-authored the paper, told Wired.

In other words, if a city built 5 percent more highway, the number of miles driven increased by exactly 5 percent. Cities that laid down 15 percent more asphalt saw 15 percent more miles driven.

Either city engineers were building exactly the needed number of new roadways — which seems highly unlikely — or drivers naturally filled up whatever highway is built, keeping traffic congestion at a maddening constant. The scientists found the latter is much likelier and proposed the "fundamental law of road congestion": Drivers meet whatever supply cities create in terms of new roads.

Other scientists have found the same with such reliable consensus that by 2015, California's Department of Transportation even admitted in new proposal documents that all available research showed new highways don't ease congestion.

In fact, cities have also found the opposite to be true. Major cities such as Paris have actually shrunk highways in recent decades and found little difference in terms of daily congestion. That's probably because drivers instinctively make choices about where and when to drive and whether to use public transit instead based on the severity of traffic jams.

2. The extension will likely affect wetlands deemed critical for Everglades restoration.

Per the Miami Herald:

Tentative proposals take the expressway, also known as State Road 836, first across the Pennsuco wetlands, another sensitive area outside the urban boundary that's being restored to make up for marshes destroyed by rock mining and other development. It then veers south through the center of the basin, a fragment of the shrinking Everglades and a rare empty swath of land critical to replenishing the shallow aquifer that supplies the county's drinking water. It's also home to a menagerie of native animals, wading birds and rare plants.

Before human intervention, the Everglades covered most of South Florida. Source: U.S. Geological Survey
The basin is also part of ongoing Everglades restoration and included in the 2000 plan to move more water south to marshes damaged by flood control. Much of the land is already owned by the Department of the Interior and the South Florida Water Management District, purchased with money specifically designated for repair work. The Miccosukee Tribe also owns several large tracts, bought to restore the tribe's historic homelands.

3. The highway crosses the Urban Development Boundary and will encourage more sprawl.

Also per the Herald:

Residents had objected to an eastern path that sought to avoid the restoration project but that they worried veered too close to them. The more westerly route, however, crosses parts of the Everglades project footprint. Sections of the highway also cover land already bought and set aside by the federal and state government for restoration work, which prompted the Department of the Interior to raise concerns in November. The highway would also cut across wetlands to the north, purchased by the government and being restored to make up for damage done by rock-mining and other development.

Last month, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said he would ask federal agencies to oppose the plan if it interfered with Everglades work, setting up a major obstacle. On Tuesday, his office said that while he has tried to work with county officials, he plans on issuing a letter Wednesday confirming his opposition to any plan that hinders ongoing restoration. Rubio has also struggled to get specific information on the highway, his office said.

Wetlands at the southwest corner of Southwest 157th Avenue and Southwest Eighth Street owned by the South Florida Water Management District and outside the Urban Development Boundary are part of an Everglades restoration project intended to push more water south to the Everglades and protect fresh water supplies.
Tim Chapman Miami Herald File
Critics say the smarter solution fixes Miami-Dade’s traffic woes without changing a comprehensive plan created to prevent sprawl and protect the rare swaths of sensitive land.

“Their [comprehensive master plan] says they can’t do this, so what they want to do is change their comp plan so they can do something that’s not right for the community,” said environmental consultant Laura Reynolds. “This vote represents our commissioners saying yes, it’s OK to move forward and throw out all the rules.”

4. The project might siphon money from the county's plans to build more railways.

From a scathing op-ed written by Transit Alliance Miami, a pro-public-transit group:

There is no technology that will replace the foundational and necessary investments we have to make now. There is an opportunity to address a number of issues, including transportation, quality of life, health, resilience and equity, with one set of actions.

The best way forward is to invest in and build other modes of transportation. Don’t have the money for rail? Take a lane of traffic and create a rapid bus corridor, then quickly upgrade it to proper bus rapid transit (BRT). Follow that with an upgrade to light rail. Build protected bike lanes now and quickly upgrade it to an interconnected bike network leading to existing public transit and key destinations. Aggressively and intentionally build transit ridership by increasing rather than cutting service and frequency on train and bus routes, fix the broken shelters along the Busway tomorrow, and focus on making each bus riders’ experience exceptional.

5. This is a leftover idea from the pre-Great Recession housing bubble.

Per the Herald once more:

Plans to extend the highway date back nearly a decade, but faltered after booming growth in South Florida slowed on the heels of the recession. In recent years, as growth resumed, traffic worsened dramatically. MDX estimates commutes average up to three hours a day for some South Dade residents. In 2017, INRIX ranked Miami traffic fifth worst among U.S. cities.

Earlier this year, County Mayor Carlos Gimenez made the 13-mile extension a priority for his last term in office. Gimenez also endorsed expanding bus routes rather than the county’s Metrorail commuter line, angering smart-growth advocates who say he’s ignoring county transportation plans. In June, the commission voted 9-2 on a preliminary approval for the highway, despite questions over environmental impacts and checks on sprawl.
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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.