Tuesday, March 12, 2013

MDX: Justifying the highway to abyss, or, unlocking wealth for a few ... by gimleteye

Eye On Miami hasn't been shy about disclosing the land speculators, the GOP campaign contributors set to benefit, and the mind-boggling fact that the same forces that plunged the economy into the worst housing crash since the Great Depression are, only a few years later, intent on doing exactly the same through the proposed expansion of State Road 836 into Southwest Miami-Dade.

Last week on NBC, Jeb Bush derided journalists probing for a frisson of competition in his relationship with Senator Marco Rubio as "crack cocaine". It was an odd choice of words.

There is an analogy with crack cocaine in Florida politics. It associates the addiction to political money with re-zoning land for suburban sprawl. It's where the dealers and the users interconnect, and the clearest place to view it is where the pressure to build more sprawl rises in distant wetlands, open space, and environmentally sensitive lands near the Everglades. In other words, exactly what the Miami-Dade expressway authority is reviewing.

We wrote about this project a year ago, when it first visibly surfaced ... although it has been on the drawing boards for many years.

Before diving into the details of the political crack cocaine addiction, it is worth a review.

The enormous wealth generated through Wall Street finance based on mortgage derivatives depends on volume: volume of mortgages for commercial and residential real estate development. The volume, in south Florida, depends on local legislatures acting to open farmland to platted subdivisions. There is considerable process involved in "shifting the goal posts" in order to misallocate risk; wetlands need to be downgraded and rezoned, open space needs to be committed to bank branches, gas stations, and car dealerships, malls need to be built to service new subdivisions with residents clamoring for cheap services.

When, at some distant point in the future, taxpayers are left scratching their heads -- how did our quality of life get wrecked? -- the addicts point to "process" and "public hearings" and all the accountrements of re-zoning, downgrading, and destroying that decorate the Growth Machine Christmas Tree like decorations carefully packed and re-used as the years unwind.

The mechanics also depend on the illusion of spreading  wealth and shifting, or ignoring, growth's true costs.

That's the underlying story of the $1 billion wastewater upgrade that is now resting on the backs of county taxpayers, as a result of decades of inaction -- stretching back to the early 1990's when a federal lawsuit forces Miami-Dade County and the EPA into a settlement agreement that the county proceeded to ignore.

Today, anything  that smacks of regulatory authority or environmental enforcement is dismissed as "government over-reaching or overstepping its boundaries". This is commonly attributed to Tea Party enthusiasms, but Jeb! Bush articulate the core principle much earlier than the so-called "revolution" we know, now, to have been orchestrated by billionaire polluters like the Koch Brothers. Jeb!, in his final inaugural address as Florida's governor in 2003, boldly averred: “There will be no greater tribute to our maturity as a society than if we can make these buildings around us empty of workers; as silent monuments to the time when government played a larger role than it deserved or could adequately fill."

The crack cocaine dealers need the policemen to vanish from observing their street corner transactions. The Growth Machine needs new markets, free from pesky citizen suits and rancid delay: free for land speculators,  cement manufacturers, roadway contractors, housing developers and real estate shills to pack local county boards and legislatures every time there is an effort to insert new zoning or new infrastructure to speed land development toward the Everglades. Boards like the MDX are in place, with characters culled from the Growth Machine, to dot the i's and cross the t's. 

"Nothing can stop it!" crowed former WCI chairman Al Hoffman, who was Jeb's! hand-picked leader for the Council of 100 -- the state's top business lobby group -- in 2003. A few years later, the company Hoffman founded -- (Hoffman was also Jeb's and Dubya's campaign finance chair) -- would dissolve in bankruptcy. The point: the mechanics of suburban sprawl and land development are not only still in place, they have become even more frictionless with the decapitation of the single state agency charged with growth management by Gov. Rick Scott, Jeb's! successor.

This is what is unfolding in the corner of Miami-Dade at the western boundary with a plan to extend the SR 836  into farmland purchased at the top of the real estate bubble primarily by top GOP campaign contributors allied with US Century Bank (on US Century, check our archive). It is a tried and true formula for wealth generation: use profits from real estate development to secure political patronage, then use political patronage to stack permitting authorities and local boards to speed the way for new taxpayer investments that will double, triple, quadruple the price of real estate, and -- if you are very very connected -- arrange for highway exits and entrances to be put right where you want them.

Last February, we wrote, "Ajamil Bermello: members of the Growth Machine nomenklatura": 

"Nomenklatura: a category of people within the Soviet Union and other Eastern bloc countries who held various key administrative positions in all sphere's of those countries' activity: government, industry, agriculture, education, engineering and infrastructure development.

In Miami-Dade (and Florida) there is a parallel nomenklatura. Some key members of our own domestic nomenklatura are on parade through the effort to extend the Dolphin Expressway south on the western edge of the county, directly threatening Everglades National Park and benefiting land speculators who purchased property in anticipation of the growth of suburban sprawl: they are also key members of the nomenklatura and include Rodney Barreto, Ramon Rasco, Ed Easton and Sergio Pino.

This week, the board of the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority (MDX) unanimously approved adding the extension of the SR 836. Nearly 200 people voiced opposition to the project. Although it is not a done deal, changes to state law and agencies under Gov. Rick Scott and the anti-environmental GOP Florida legislature are going to make it quite difficult for citizens to stop the expansion that will expose many thousands acres of farmland to development pressure.

The local engineering firm, Ajamil Bermello, has put its shoulder to this wheels of progress.

Ajamil Bermello's Tere Garcia is providing public relations support for the MDX board. In response to opponents, she wrote recently in the professional, neutral tone that masks the frenetic investments of political energy to plow more highway in service of sprawl: "The extension of SR 836 is envisioned as a multimodal facility, used also by express transit buses, that would address the existing transportation needs of a vast community of thousands of existing residents living in the southwestern areas of Miami-Dade County west of the Turnpike. There will be no recommendation on MDX's behalf to move the Urban Development Boundary Line. Any alternative to be identified as part of the study must be evaluated considering all environmental requirements, sound engineering practices, be financially feasible and enjoy the support of those served."

Bermello Ajamil is part of the nomenclature that Occupy Miami and the rest of the Occupy movement ought to study. It takes a village to raise a child and confident engineers to wreck the village.

Willy Bermello, a founding partner of the engineering firm, famously tooted the housing boom in the Miami Herald in May 2005 at just about the same time much of the land in question in the SR 836 expansion was being purchased by nomenklatura friends: "This bubble is not latex," he wrote, "but stainless steel." The Herald provided no opportunity for rebuttal, showing its publisher also knew his place.

The point is that the worst economy since the Great Depression have not thwarted, changed, or modified the goals of the nomenklatura in Miami-Dade in the slightest. Ms. Garcia notes that the initial planning for the extension of SR 836 began in 2007: indeed, all that shows is that the nomenklatura have been intent-- from the start-- to build sprawl to the edge of the Everglades just like Broward."

It is worth tracking back to EOM posts on the land ownership patterns around the SR 836 planned extension. The only news in the Miami Herald report, below, is that commuters, through tolls, have funded a $6.9 million study that will no doubt reach the conclusion that the highway extension is a great public benefit.

The only reason it hasn't rolled out faster is that the real estate downturn turned all the assets in land into big craters on bank balance sheets. Some of these banks, like US Century, have struggled to keep their doors open and to maintain at least the figment of equity. (We still haven't heard all the details of who, exactly, was able to keep mortgages for large land holdings without being required to pay interest or principal while others were shut down and taken over.)

While small, individual homeowners found themselves forced to ruin by the downturn, big and politically connected land owners were protected by the banks that could not afford to "mark-to-market" the loans and so left them alone, once it became clear that federal banking authorities would do nothing to set the record straight.

These are hidden stories that sometimes emerge on 60 Minutes but otherwise stay mostly out of sight.

Take a good look at the owners of the property bordering the proposed MDX Expressway. Interpretation, to come.

New expressway idea for Southwest Miami-Dade draws fire

Miami-Dade’s expressway authority has launched a multi-million-dollar study of what could be one of the most controversial transportation ideas to come down the pike in a while: A new north-south expressway that could run through farms and ecologically sensitive wetlands at the county’s extreme urban edge.

The most likely route, according to a conceptual plan developed by MDX, would take it along Krome Avenue, meaning the multi-lane expressway — billed as a “southwest extension” of State Road 836 — would run almost entirely outside the county’s Urban Development Boundary, on land now zoned for agriculture or environmental conservation.

MDX officials, who inked a contract for a five-year, $6.9 million study of the idea, say the expressway would extend south to Southwest 136th Street, providing relief for Miami-Dade’s sprawling and traffic-choked far western suburbs.

But environmentalists, planners and urban advocates have slammed the concept as an outdated car-centric scheme that will do little to relieve congestion, but instead open up tens of thousands of acres of farms and plant nurseries beyond the UDB to further suburban development. The contemplated roadway would also bring pollution and development closer to the imperiled Everglades National Park, they say.

“We think there is no need for this extension. It poses a direct threat to the Everglades and to the Redland,’’ said Jonathan Ullman, Everglades field organizer for the Sierra Club in Miami. “It’s just a sprawl road designed to benefit sprawl developers.’’

Administrators at MDX, a semi-independent agency that manages the county’s toll highways, say they’re well aware of the area’s environmental sensitivity. But they say many of the 850,000 residents along the corridor must now rely on dangerous Krome Avenue to travel north and south by car. Existing expressways to the east, meanwhile, are virtually inaccessible because of congestion on local roads, MDX executive director Javier Rodriguez said. And further growth is expected inside the urban boundary, he noted.

“Talk to the residents who live out there. It’s absolutely frustrating and devastating to go east,’’ Rodriguez said. “It’s crazy what’s happening out there. We have to deal with an existing problem that we have. How are going to deal with the growth?’’

The dilemma, some critics say, is the direct result of Miami-Dade’s permitting of scores of car-dependent, single-family home subdivisions far from major job centers in an environmentally sensitive zone — once all part of the Everglades watershed — without adequate roadways or mass transit.

But it’s unclear whether MDX’s concept will prove doable in an era of shrinking budgets for highway building and maintenance, and growing skepticism over whether highway expansion relieves congestion, or simply engenders more.

MDX has been quietly laying the foundation for the expressway for years. The agency last month signed a deal with Stantec, a multinational planning and engineering firm, to study the feasibility, environmental impact and best potential routes for the possible expressway. But the idea was first outlined in a 2009 conceptual plan for expansion of the agency’s network of toll roads. The new study will include substantial public input, a schedule of public events and the establishment of citizen advisory committees, MDX says, but it doesn’t mean the road will get built.

Stantec begins work as MDX gets ready to expand tolling to both directions on both SR 836 and State Road 112 and create new tolling points. The new tolling scheme would generate $400 million, which the agency will use to raise $400 million more to improve its existing network. The money would cover planned improvements of all interchanges on 836 east of the Palmetto Expressway and a western extension of the Gratigny Expressway, among other projects.

The southwest expressway is not part of that funding scheme, however. MDX officials say they do not know how much it would cost or how it would be financed, though tolling — the main source of agency funding — would be at least part of the formula.

They do know it would generate substantial opposition. The 2009 conceptual plan notes the project would likely require an “aggressive’’ public campaign. Also, that study noted, “there is the potential that the improved access may increase pressures for the continued extension of the County’s UDB.”

The concept plan identified a “study area’’ stretching from the end of 836 at Southwest 137th Avenue and Southwest Eight Street to Southwest 136th Street, and between Krome Avenue and Southwest 152nd Avenue.

That means the expressway would run through conservation zones like the Bird Road Basin and the county’s western wellfields as it bends to the south. Then, to continue south, it could take Krome, hug the UDB or follow Southwest 157th Avenue. MDX officials, however, acknowledge that last possibility seems unlikely because it would take the roadway through a built-up area, likely generating strong opposition from residents and requiring costly acquisition and condemnation of developed land.

“These are lines on a map. I’m not sure the 157th alternative would ever be done,’’ Rodriguez said. “That’s conceptual. We just said look somewhere west of the turnpike, in that area, and analyze as many options as possible.’’

But running the expressway along or outside the UDB appears to run counter to the county’s comprehensive development master plan, which steers such infrastructure into already urbanized areas to keep development from sprawling further west.

Those rules, which control zoning and land uses, require that the county spend its infrastructure money first inside the UDB, and only secondarily in certain areas already earmarked for modest expansion of the line, said Miami-Dade planning chief Mark Woerner.

The rules also require that land zoned as agricultural or conservation zones also be avoided, he said. Outside the UDB, the rules require that transportation improvements be limited to serving only the local rural population.

“Our concern will always be, what is the effect of providing infrastructure in areas that are not urbanized? Is that going to act as a catalyst for further sprawl? Does it solve the transportation issue, or does it make it worse?’’ Woerner said. “If it spurs additional development, you’re just adding new traffic. Look at the history. We built the Palmetto and filled that up. We built the Turnpike to the west and filled that up.’’

That land needs to remain mostly undeveloped for other reasons, said the Sierra Club’s Ullman. Low-lying western areas on the fringes of the national park will be critical for absorbing rising water levels caused by rising seas as they push their way into the aquifer that lies beneath South Florida, he said.

“We need that land to act as a sponge to protect the rest of our community against sea-level rise. This policy is headed in exactly the wrong direction,’’ Ullman said.

Moreover, some leading planners say studies show that adding or expanding highways only induces more traffic and does little to relieve congestion in the long run. In any case, they say, new expressways are increasingly rare because states are finding them increasingly an economic challenge to build and maintain — especially as public works and highway departments have trouble maintaining what already exists.

Instead of extending roadway networks to undeveloped areas, some planners say, local leaders should focus on channeling new construction into developed areas where roads and infrastructure already exist.

“To me it’s a little bit mind-boggling. It’s a highway to 1966,’’ said nationally known Coral Gables-based planner Victor Dover of the proposed expressway. “The idea of spending hundreds of millions of dollars to deliberately push development out into nurseries and farms and our dwindling hinterlands is the opposite of what we should be doing.’’

But MDX says decisions about development are not its bailiwick. Any proposed expressway, agency leaders say, will have to receive planning and environmental approvals from a range of local, state and federal agencies.

“We understand that land use is one of the big issues. That’s not something our board does,’’ Rodriguez said. “It’s far from being a done deal.’’


Anonymous said...

Well written but it is not only the G.O.P., it is all politicians in office who pose a threat to the farming lands. Yes the the state power has been with the republicans but if not for the local level politicians of both parties these schemes would not be possible. $6.9 million for a study? Really? With tight budgets and needs everywhere, the enablers are both parties.

Anonymous said...


Juan Zapata wants a "public works trust fund" of public/private funds in his District, which happens to be where this MDX plan runs through. How convenient!

Pamela Gray

Gimleteye said...

I agree with the premise that the Democrats, if they were in power, would look for the same form of leverage ... it is what happened through the Homestead Air Base fiasco, Penelas and Bob Graham in the background. This is old history, but it deserves re-telling, too. The reason I single out the GOP is that it IS controlling the levers of power in the county and state. The principals ARE in Miami-Dade County; the names and faces are familiar.

Anonymous said...

We prosecute the crack dealers. We prosecutors to look into your statement that profits 'secure political patronage.'
Problem is that those prosecuting have also been secured.

@JaneMiami said...

Starve the beast, folks. It's an old Republican trick that you might enjoy.

Sign the petition at www.rollbacktolls.com. It's just Phase 1 of an education campaign to connect people's anger to their brain to their toll bills. Phase 2 will have more teeth in it. We promise.

Pat Milone said...

You have 3 minutes to address The Board
With any concerns you want to report.
Too much Toll Money spent on trees!
And what about those Maintenance Fees?!
They’ll say that’s included in their Budget,
And then Raise Toll Rates to Fund New Projects!
MDX has your Future all Planned,
The 836 they want to Expand!
Westward to the Agricultural Land,
Urban Development Boundary be Damned!
They’ll make a proposal to the County Commission,
And with Developers Lobbying, might get permission.
Oh, you'll have your 3 minutes to voice Opposition,
But will MDX and County Commissioners listen?

(poem by Pat Milone)