As students cross the intersection of U.S. 1 and Mariposa Court to grab a sandwich from Bagel Emporium or meet friends at T.G.I. Friday’s, they may not realize something is missing — the pedestrian overpass that was promised after UM student Ashley Kelly was struck and killed by an SUV that ran a red light in 2005.
Almost seven years later, the project appears to have green lights all around, from almost $6 million in funding at the federal and state level to an approved Mediterranean-style design.
But Miami-Dade County (MDC) is facing a new hurdle — the acquisition of the northwest corner of the University Centre parking lot, needed to create the overpass landing.
“We are at an impasse with the owner,” said Albert Hernandez, assistant director of engineering, planning and development for Miami Dade Transit (MDT).
On Jan. 29, the property owner rejected the county’s final offer of $1,853,900 for the corner of the lot, which includes approximately five parking spots.
“We are very disappointed that we have an unwilling seller,” said Dr. Pat Whitely, vice president for student affairs. “Everyone is committed to seeing this come to fruition.”
According to the owner’s attorney, Toby Brigham, the overpass would be detrimental to business, blocking advertising and disrupting access. A primary concern is the obstruction of roadside visibility to drivers who may be potential customers.
“Any impediment to any shopping center in competition with others has a big effect, particularly in this economy,” Brigham said. “It affects long term the success of this shopping center.”
This is the latest roadblock in a process that dates back to 2003, even before Kelley’s death, when the overpass was recommended for inclusion in the county’s People’s Transportation Plan.
At least eight reported students have been struck crossing Ponce de Leon Boulevard and U.S. 1, the two major roadways by campus since 1988.
The accidents have resulted in three fatalities — Eric Adams in ’90, Aaron Baber in ’98 and Ashley Kelly in ’05.
Kelly’s death prompted Student Government to pass the “Ashley Kelly Resolution,” calling for construction of the overpass at Mariposa and U.S. 1.
“This is a public safety issue,” said Margot Winick, assistant vice president of university communications. “It has been for years.”
According to Hernandez, the county encountered fiscal challenges in 2008 and the project was placed on hold indefinitely. By September 2011 they had located the funding and intended to proceed.
Communication with the property owner and the owner’s attorney opened in June after two independent appraisers determined the property value, but the owner has declined the offer multiple times.
Brigham said that because the county has the power of eminent domain — the ability to take private property for public use with just compensation — the owner’s refusal should not be considered a true obstacle.
UM law professor David Abraham agreed.
“Any eminent domain undertaking costs money, and almost every one is initially contested by the private property owner, so just go forward,” he said. “Don’t retreat at the first sign of opposition. These things have to be examined and contested.”
According to Hernandez, the county is hesitant to pursue eminent domain because in addition to the property value, it could be liable for business damages for each tenant of the shopping center.
“This could open a Pandora’s box of lengthy litigation,” he said. “It could be very risky and time consuming. We could pursue eminent domain, but at what cost and for how long in court?”
Hernandez claims the county does not have the additional funds to pursue that option.
“It is very important that we move forward with a willing buyer, willing seller process,” he said.
According to Hernandez, the county would be prepared to provide extra parking spots across the street and put signage on the tower of the overpass, assuming the city of Coral Gables agreed.
Brigham stressed that the owner believes there are other alternatives.
“It seems pretty apparent that there are better solutions the county should pursue,” he said.
One of the ideas is to pave a walkway and pull the overpass south so it lands at the UM-owned Gables One Tower halfway down the block.
While pedestrians going to the tower would have direct access, northbound pedestrians would walk an extra half-block in the wrong direction since the crosswalk would be fenced off.
“The bridge would be offset from a natural pedestrian flow.” Hernandez said. “It’s an alternative, but it’s not the best solution. From an engineering perspective, the bridge is located in the best possible place.”
Another option is to toss the overpass plan and focus on improving intersection safety, including traffic signals and lighting.
Student Government President Nawara Alawa said that she would prefer an overpass because it is the safest way to separate students from traffic, but would be happy if any action were taken.
“We are concerned for the safety of students, so whatever will help students cross U.S. 1 safely is what we’re advocating for,” she said. “Any of those options will be more secure than what we currently have.”
Whatever the county chooses to pursue, they must decide quickly. The state grant from the Florida Department of Transportation, which partially funds the project, is set to expire June 30.
For the funding to be extended, MDT would need to justify the delay and include a plan of action.
“The next step is to sit down with UM and discuss where we are, what steps we need to take, and whether we should take them,” Hernandez said.
He added that none of the options have been ruled out or confirmed at this point.
While UM is an interested party in the construction of the overpass, it has neither direct control over the outcome nor is it providing funding for the project.
“We’re in ongoing meetings,” Whitely said. “When there is new information, the university community will know.”
According to Whitely, the city and the county have been dedicated to the project.
“Everyone is working really hard,” she said. “We all want the same thing. There are no adversaries. When you’ve had families who’ve lost a son or a daughter, this is something you want to see happen.”