slowing down but not changing course on resilience efforts

Resiliency

Susan Askew
Susan Askew

slowing down but not changing course on resilience efforts:

making a statement

At a joint meeting of the Commission’s Neighborhood and Community Affairs Committee and the Mayor’s Blue Ribbon Panel on Sea Level Rise, the message was clear: The timeline for stormwater improvement and road elevation projects to prepare for sea level rise is getting more realistic but the City’s commitment to resiliency remains the same.
 
The group agreed with a new staff proposal to schedule the projects over a ten year period versus the original "very aggressive" 7-8 year timeline.
 
Public Works Direct Eric Carpenter said the original timeline was based on dealing with “worst first” in terms of lower elevation areas but also the need to replace aging infrastructure. “There are many benefits that come along with these neighborhood improvement projects: new water lines, new sewer lines, new stormwater system and new roads and sidewalks,” he said. “[The City is] over 100 years old at this point and we have a number of communities that have their original infrastructure in place. We’re going through an urban renewal process and we really need to keep our infrastructure up to par or we face much higher replacement costs down the road in emergency conditions.”
 
In addition to investing in new infrastructure, he said, “We’ve committed to adapt to sea level rise. A lot of people when they’re talking about sea level rise they talk about adapt or retreat. We’ve made the commitment that we are not going to look at retreat as an option. We are going to adapt.”
 
That said, Carpenter indicated the timeline was too aggressive “based on all the work to be done. We need to blend out the projects.” He noted the City is getting ready to start or already in construction on seven neighborhood projects this year. By extending the overall timeline to ten years, he said, Staff will be able to focus better on individual projects. In addition, he said, there was concern about traffic issues with too many projects at one time.
 
Scott Robins, chair of the Blue Ribbon Panel, said “This program took a lot to get up and running… it took four years and we don’t want to lose momentum. We don’t want to lose staff, the great people that we have working [on this] so stretching it out a little bit works. Stopping and starting definitely doesn’t work and that’s what we have to avoid.”
 
Neighborhoods Committee Chair Commissioner Micky Steinberg said, “[The Commission was] concerned there were some areas where there was overlap and there were major traffic concerns. And also there was no room for error so if a water main pipe broke somewhere else we would really have the whole city at a standstill and staff was really overextended in so many ways.”
 
Commissioner John Alemán said, “Conceptually I am in favor of slowing down the pace and it makes sense to take some of the pressure off staff and give them more time to dedicate to each individual project … At the same time we all know that the cost of labor and the cost of construction materials is only going up. So I do think we need to be careful about the bond and the total price tag. The duration of the timeline and our ability to meet the numbers as we had planned are directly tied together.” She also asked about adjusting the schedule to account for a few areas experiencing flooding now – including Orchard Park and Tatum Waterway – that are surrounded by areas with higher elevations and not scheduled for improvements until later in the schedule.
 
Commissioner Michael Grieco said he wants to ensure it is understood that the City is not wavering from its commitment to resiliency. “I think it’s pragmatic to slow down,” he said. “The only reservation I have … is the takeaway from the media, Washington, DC or Tallahassee that this slowdown is somehow communicating a lack of commitment to the program and that’s the only true reservation I have.” He said he doesn't want FEMA or insurance underwriters “to get the message that this is somehow a lack of commitment to the project”.  Grieco also pointed out the challenges of the election process and changing members of the Commission along with potential changes in staff over time if the projects are extended too far noting there are “advantages to having the same team or a similar set of faces.”
 
Alemán agreed. “In Miami Beach we have been leading on this front. So we have access to the best talent. People are coming from all over the world to talk to our engineers and our experts.” As other coastal towns gear up their efforts she said, “Our access to talent, good construction firms, materials is going to get much worse.”
 
Bond rates were on the mind of Commissioner Joy Malakoff.  “Right now bonds are still at a very, very good rate,” she said. “And I’m concerned about going too far [into the future] because … you need to borrow the money when rates are low.”
 
Carpenter said the City has spent $100M to date of a total planned $500M program. He emphasized the City isn’t letting up. “We’re timing it out a little more realistically.”
 
The group endorsed the new timeline and asked for a report back on the potential of adding Orchard Park and Tatum Waterway earlier in the schedule.
 
The second item on the agenda, what to do about the tree canopy on Alton Road was continued for a future discussion so the City’s new forester could give his opinion. FDOT will begin work on Alton Road between Michigan and 63rd Streets at the end of 2020. They have indicated they cannot raise the road and save all of the trees and have asked the City to prioritize one or the other. Acting Environment and Sustainability Director, Margarita Wells, said she would like time to review the plan with the new forester who has ideas for saving some of the trees.
 
Chief Resiliency Officer Susy Torriente also told the group there have been many lessons learned as the City navigates its way through the uncharted territory of addressing sea level rise. “We’ve been on a major listening and learning tour. We’ve used the feedback we’ve been getting and made design adjustments along the way and we’ve created a lot of new communications tools that we didn’t have before.”
 
After hearing the concerns of the community and Commission, she said “We have been adapting and adjusting, actually almost on a daily and weekly basis.” After concerns were raised about flood insurance, the City created fact sheets to help residents understand the insurance process. When potential flooding of private properties from road elevation was raised, Torriente said the City’s engineers designed the drainage system a little differently. “That was the result of community concerns.” The Commission also responded by permitting water from private properties to drain into the City’s system without charge.
 
When roadway elevation was causing confusion, the City created an adaptation calculator that allows homeowners to put in their address and see the current road in relation to their finished floor elevation and how their property would look after road elevation. And, the City has made its engineers available for one-on-one meetings with homeowners to walk through the process and its impact on individual properties.
 
The proposed construction timeline now goes to the Commission for its approval.