flooded streets in key biscayne
People try to cross Harbor Drive in Key Biscayne during a tropical deluge, June 4, 2022. Key Biscayne Council members expressed unease about a $310 million estimate to build new storm water lines and pumps to combat sea level rise. (KBI Photo/Tony Winton)
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Reeling from what appeared to be a case of sticker shock, the Key Biscayne Village Council indicated Tuesday that a $310 million estimate for replumbing the island’s antiquated drainage system was too expensive and needed to be altered, slowed down, or both. 

The uneasiness over the cost of protecting the island from rising seas came even as Hurricane Idalia was pummeling the Gulf Coast with torrential rainfall and storm surge.

Tuesday, Council members had been set to consider a 15% stormwater fee increase to help fund the first phase of the massive drainage project near the island’s K-8 school, an area that floods even on sunny days. But sensing what was coming, Manager Steve Williamson pulled it from the agenda. 

Instead, Williamson directed the Village’s engineers to identify cost drivers and options, and also set a round of one-on-one private sessions with members of the Council. He has repeatedly advised elected officials that Key Biscayne was behind schedule on moving forward with resilience initiatives and that decisions needed to be made soon.

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“Everything is on the table,” said Mayor Joe Rasco in the first public discussion since AECOM, the Village’s engineering firm, presented a series of estimates ranging from $170 to $430 million Aug. 16. “Anybody who’s out there saying that we’re ready to make a decision on $300 million is totally incorrect. We’re, we’re far from making that decision.” 

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“We’re trying to accelerate the schedule for the undergrounding,” said Vice Mayor Frank Caplan. The statement appeared to be news to Williamson, who has been planning an integrated “dig once” strategy for months and has held numerous briefings with elected officials and the public about the concept.

“That’s never been my intent relative to undergrounding,” said Caplan.

“You can’t fault AECOM, Steve, or anybody else,” said Council Member Ed London, “because we gave him the criteria,” referring to the 2022 vote he cast. He said he got strong reactions from some residents, but he responded that even a $300 million expenditure was less than 2% of the island’s tax base. 

London and Council Member Fernando Vazquez asked the administration to come back with more detailed options that might not remove water as quickly as earlier envisioned but also to be specific about financing spread out over decades. 

Williamson said that Chief Financial Officer Benjamin Nussbaum had indeed been working on borrowing strategies, and said after the meeting he was hoping to have more detailed information soon. 

Officials have said much of the borrowing for the miles of drainage lines and pumps would come from a low-interest state revolving fund, preserving the capacity to issue municipal bonds for other resiliency items like raising roads or undergrounding. 

But Tuesday’s discussion on the floodwater removal targets conveyed the sense that the earlier goals were perhaps too aggressive, at least politically. Those targets call for no more than six inches of water in road swales with a duration of 6-12 hours, with roads being “passable” if not dry.

“How pristine does pristine need to be,” Caplan said.

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This story was updated to clarify the water removal target with respect to swales and roadways.

Editor-in-Chief

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.

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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...