In a unanimous vote, the Miami-Dade County Commission killed what could have been a $500 million privatization of the iconic Rickenbacker Causeway The vote Wednesday came after Mayor Daniella Levine Cava recommended scrapping the proposal and starting from scratch.
Commissioners instead voted to prioritize a scaled-back project, a replacement of the Bear Cut Bridge, one of three spans on the Causeway and the one engineers worry might not withstand strong hurricanes.
Moments after the Causeway vote, Key Biscayne Mayor Mike Davey exchanged a fist bump with the village attorney, Chad Friedman. The Village had formally opposed the project, saying it didn’t address the needs of the 15,000 residents for whom the causeway is the only path on and off the island. He later said the Village looks forward to working with County leaders on a new project.
The privatization plan began in earnest last summer when Levine Cava decided to take up a secret “unsolicited proposal” from the Zyscovich Consortium. The proposal was based on the cyclist-friendly “Plan Z” from architect Bernard Zyscovich. The County Commission then approved a hurried process designed to encourage private-public partnerships. In the “P3” process, rival bidders were then invited to submit proposals in a competitive process that —if completed— would have given the County a choice between Zyscovich’s concept and those trying to match it.
But the Rickenbacker concept quickly drew opponents. First, Miami Beach officials pushed to have a proposed renovation of the Venetian Causeway dropped from the original solicitation that bundled two causeways together. Key Biscayne officials initially had hoped to revise the design of the Rickenbacker concept, but later formally opposed the overall project, asking for a do-over. The main concerns? Increased tolls and traffic flow on Virginia Key.
In recommending that the very process she initiated be scrapped, Mayor Levine Cava focused on economics, commissioning a “value for money” study that concluded a fresh start would allow officials to get a better understanding of federal transportation dollars that could be used to offset costs. The mayor said she didn’t want replacement of the Bear Cut Bridge, a 77-year-structure, to be delayed any further.
Joining her was Commissioner Raquel Regalado, who also initially saw hope that the Plan Z project could be modified, but changed course as community opposition grew.
But others faulted Levine Cava for not taking a clearer direction from the start and seeing it through. Commission Chair Jose “Pepe” Diaz said the mayor took a hands-off approach after she brought the matter to the commissioners.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said. He speculated a causeway renovation may come back as a proposal in combination with the City of Miami or the state Department of Transportation. The city, which has plans to develop Virginia Key, didn’t take a public position on the privatization plan.
“What I’m disappointed at, is that we have a system, and the system works well everywhere,” he said of the county’s public-private partnership law. “For sure it’s going to inhibit future P3s.”
Diaz also suggested that the Zyscovich Consortium would have been wise to consult with Village leaders before the matter came to an initial vote by the Commission.
In a statement, the Plan Z Consortium expressed disappointment in the solicitation’s termination and said it hoped the County would “move swiftly to begin their proposed new process.”
Asked whether the cancellation would lead to a loss of momentum on one of her signature projects, Levine Cava said she was unfazed.
“I think that people recognize that I am always going to do my due diligence and take the responsible path.”
As for the Bear Cut Bridge replacement, County officials are still hopeful of securing federal dollars under President Biden’s recently passed infrastructure law. But Gov. Ron DeSantis cast doubt on the amount that would be available to Florida projects.
In a news release this week, the governor said less than $245 million in bridge repairs would be allocated to Florida from $27 billion in funds, which he called unfair.
A DeSantis spokeswoman, Christina Pushaw, said officials were checking on the specific impacts to the Rickenbacker Causeway and Bear Cut bridges, but Levine Cava said the funding amounts for repairs are different than replacements.
The resolution adopted Wednesday directs Levine Cava is to report back to the County Commission on the prioritization plan in 60 days.
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.