News: Tuesday Morning Breakfast Club: Leggo My Pego

By Anne Newport Royall

Miami Beach’s Tuesday Morning Breakfast Club met as usual this past Tuesday morning at David’s Café II, one door off the NW corner of Lincoln Road and Meridian Avenue in the heart of SoBe. This decades-plus old forum serves as an intimate contact between policy-makers and citizens, and is de rigueur for all political aspirants and mega-developers hoping to gain support from the uber-knowledgeable gang of regulars breakfasting with café con leche, Cuban toast and huevos.

David Kelsey kicked off with morning announcements that included next week’s speaker, and the hope that the man behind the recall of Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado would appear before the club. Then, owing perhaps to the small number of those in attendance, Moderator Kelsey invited self-introductions from around the U-shaped table. Officials of the City, either staff or elected, accounted for nearly half those present.

Speakers of the day are called “guests” and as is custom, make a speech or presentation before opening the floor to questions from club members. Gus Pego, Secretary for District Six of the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), was the guest on August 9, 2011. Mr. Pego has a big job. FDOT is a decentralized agency, in accordance with the infinite wisdom of the Florida Legislature, composed of seven districts. Each one is managed by a district secretary. Our Mr. Pego is responsible for the overall planning, design, construction, operations and maintenance of the entire State Highway System in Miami-Dade and Monroe Counties. He oversees a $10 billion, five-year work program and has a staff of approximately 575, not counting contractors and consultants. FDOT provides funding assistance to Miami-Dade Transit and the City of Key West Transit Authority. Mr. Pego also serves on the Department’s Executive Board and as a Miami-Dade Expressway Authority (MDX) Board Member and the Miami-Dade Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), according to that website.

From all this, Mr. Pego stood this day to talk about two projects that have caused quite a stir on the Beach: the Port of Miami Tunnel and the reconstruction of Alton Road. After reciting his litmus test of the worth of public works projects—“We have $2 billion in construction underway now creating 56 thousand direct or indirect jobs”—he introduced Christopher Hodgkins, vice president of the Miami Access Tunnel, the team in charge of designing, building, financing, operating and maintaining port tunnels. The affable Mr. Hodgkins began by justifying numbers. “We have created 899 jobs, and through our local hiring preference program, which we call ‘Operation 305”, 72 percent of our workers are local with over 150 local
companies on the job.”

Mr. Hodgkins is the public face of the public/private partnership that is the scheme to get this project done. Heralded as one of the first “greenfield public-private partnerships in the United States” as brokered by local legal powerhouse Greenberg Traurig in 2009, it is Mr. Hodgkins’ role for the foreign-owned concessionaire Meridiam Infrastructure Fund and Bouygues Travaux Publics, SA, to keep us natives happy. He is well-versed in all things tunnel, and always provides an up-to-the minute detailed description of exactly where along the construction continuum the project lies. “Tomorrow, in fact”, he exclaimed as he pointed a finger in the air for emphasis, “the very first piece of the Tunnel Boring Machine will be placed into the launching pit.” Located in the newly-reconstructed center of the western portions of the Macarthur Causeway, this will present a photo-op for the ages.

But the club members were having none of it. It’s the congestion, safety and by-passing of Miami Beach in these plans, and other “so-called” improvements that use their tax dollars, that these folks came to be heard about. And heard from they were.

Dorothy Shifrin was first to tackle the safety issue, but it was Harry Cherry who focused on the money; 95 percent of the working capitol for that half-billion-dollar project is coming from the public. “This is a design-build-operate contract,” Hodgkins explained. “We have five years to build it and 30 years to operate it.” The cost is fixed, with FDOT covering $457 million; Miami-Dade County contributing $402.5 million; and Miami set to infuse some $50 million toward construction costs. The only overrun that “might” occur lies within the unknown geostrata, and that trigger has already been pulled.

Mr. Pego claimed that “This project was started over twenty years ago, and we did several rounds of investigations and borings to 150 feet; but there’s always a mystery to Mother Earth. We made a contingency [for cost overruns] in the contract.”

So far, this is the only claim for increased compensation in the design-build portion of the contract,  happening before boring even began with the determination that the swiss-cheesy substrate could not be properly munched by the tunneler. So about $150 million of additional grout is going to be needed.

“The first excess $10 million puts the contractor on the hook; but the next $150 million in overruns is taxpayers’ money,” Hodgkins admitted.

“I would have expected you to do the geotechnical testing required to be sure before you started a project as costly as this, Cherry stated. “It raises doubts.”

Michael Fryd, Beach photograph entrepreneur, brought up some very interesting points related to the Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002, and questioned the Tunnel’s being subject to the Act’s provisions, and how that level of security would be implemented. Mr. Pego did not have answers, but assured Mr. Fryd that he would look into it.

Rick Kendle then spoke for many when he stated his concern for assurances that FDOT “Thinks things through so they’re done right.” To him it seems as if many projects—the Port of Miami Tunnel, the temporary widening of I-395, the complete reconstruction of I-395, the HOV lanes from Golden Glades to Miami that bypass the 41st Street Miami Beach exit—“are great for the City of Miami, but not so much for ours.”

David Kelsey reiterated those issues, pointing to all the proposed and happening development along the waterfront in Miami: The resurgence of lower- and upper-Biscayne Boulevard, Brickell Avenue, the Malaysian Casino Group’s purchase of the Miami Herald property, the development of Mid-town, and now FDOT doing road construction projects that appear to make it unnecessarily difficult to get to Miami Beach. “Our concern is getting residents and visitors in and out of our City,” he said.

Never bothering to let a little sunshine get in his way, Commissioner Michael Gongora engaged in a discussion regarding FDOT and its perceived lack of cooperation with Miami Beach, all while standing beside Commissioner Jonah Wolfson, who also had only complaints for the Department. Mr. Pego’s assertions that changes to Fifth Street in the form of a closed median prohibiting a left-hand turn were caused by safety concerns, as it’s one of the District’s worst locations for accidents, fell flat in a roomful of educated people used to getting their way.

The bike lanes on Alton Road, too, caused a bit of consternation as the City tried promoting itself as “bicycle-friendly” while excoriating FDOT for including the State-mandated lanes in the reconstruction plans of Alton. “We are looking at all our options and will report back to the commission, but our job is to make the street safe for all users, trucks, cars, buses, bicycles and pedestrians,” Pego concluded. “And bicycles on the sidewalk are not safe.”

TO GO: The TMBC meets every Tuesday at 8:30 a.m., except on Election Days, at David’s Café II, 1654 Meridian Avenue, South Beach.

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