Anger over plans to privatize the Rickenbacker Causeway boiled over in normally-tranquil Key Biscayne Wednesday, as top Miami-Dade County officials were booed and heckled. Two people were arrested on misdemeanor offenses, police said.
The meeting, organized by County Commissioner Raquel Regalado, drew about 150 residents, many of whom stood for two hours in a packed room. Speaker after speaker urged the County to abandon the secretive privatization process to renovate the Causeway and its bridges, a plan that some have estimated to cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
The biggest concern? That private operation and ownership would do little to protect Key Biscayne from worsening traffic. The bridge and roadway system is the only way on and off the island for residents, employees, and millions of park visitors. Several parents of MAST Academy students also voiced concerns about plans to safely handle access to the campus.
“You have done something incredible,” said resident Carlos Genatios to Regalado. “You have put all of Key Biscayne together.”
Regalado pleaded for the audience to hear the speakers out, saying repeatedly that she has not made up her mind about next steps, and that Mayor Daniella Levine Cava or the Commission could well scrap the current process and start anew.
“This is getting very adversarial. I don’t have to support it,” Regalado said, explaining that she is ready to vote no if a proposal comes forward that doesn’t serve the community.
Residents heard from County parks chief Maria Nardi, who said Levine Cava had agreed to give Key Biscayne a voting seat on the committee that will score both the secret unsolicited proposal made by the Zyscovich Consortium and bids from competitors, which are due by December.
The County is already moving to drop the Venetian Causeway from the original bid plan, and other big changes could happen — including just stopping, said Jimmy Morales, Levine Cava’s chief operations officer. He said the mayor is keeping her options open and has not ruled out a publicly-financed option, which likely would require a countywide vote. Morales represented Key Biscayne on the County Commission from 1996 through 2004.
“The mayor certainly has the right to look at it and say, ‘I don’t think this works.’” Morales said Levine Cava has ordered a financial analysis to understand the options. IMG Rebel, a Washington-based infrastructure advisory firm, is conducting the analysis, officials said.
But a public option is not an easy answer, as the County must juggle expensive and competing infrastructure needs from many different communities, said Rebecca Wakefield, a top aide to Regalado. Even though officials anticipate federal dollars, strong opposition to significant toll increases on and off the island may make additional local dollars hard to find.
Several speakers revived the idea of letting Key Biscayne itself step forward and put together its own financing plan. Among them was Vice Mayor Ed London, who opposed such a plan in 2019 when Mayor Mike Davey proposed it.
“I was wrong,” London said. He pointed out that a privatization plan would still rely on federal funding but cost more, and that Key Bicayne has significant borrowing capacity at lower cost.
Watching carefully was Village Manager Steve Williamson, who noted that the County had also committed to a needs assessment in evaluating any bids, a welcome move. Based on emails from residents, he wasn’t surprised by the emotion and had given County officials a heads-up that they’d be entering a hostile room.
“That took a lot of guts,” he said of the county department heads attending. “I’m really glad they got to see and hear and feel the emotion of our residents. People are fearful of the unknown.”
Council Member Brett Moss agreed, saying the session showed the County “everybody in Key Biscayne is on the same page.” As for Regalado, he said she had the opportunity to seize the moment. “She can be a hero,” he said, by urging the plan start afresh.
THIS PORTION HAS BEEN UPDATED – Police identified the two people arrested as Nina Wallin and Alex Serrano. Interim Police Chief Jason Younes initially said the charges were not related to wearing facial coverings, but the police report indicates the interaction with officers began when both refused to wear face masks. Wallin was charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest without violence, and Serrano was charged with trespass after warning and disorderly conduct. They were both taken to the Turner Guilford Knight jail and were in the process of posting bond Thursday morning, records showed.
Tony Winton is the editor-in-chief of the Key Biscayne Independent and president of Miami Fourth Estate, Inc. He worked previously at The Associated Press for three decades winning multiple Edward R. Murrow awards. He was president of the News Media Guild, a journalism union, for 10 years. Born in Chicago, he is a graduate of Columbia University. His interests are photography and technology, sailing, cooking, and science fiction.