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Bike-trail project a lot tougher than expected

The Miami Herald: Bike-trail project a lot tougher than expected

Dickering between Miami and the county has stalled a mountain bike-trail plan for Virginia Key's North Point.

BY ANDRES VIGLUCCI

When Miami commissioners recently approved a far-reaching master plan to remake ecologically damaged Virginia Key, everyone in the room thought at least one simple piece was all ready to go: new mountain-bike trails on the island's now-inaccessible North Point.

That's because a group of cyclists had been ready for months to build and maintain the trails, just as they do at the popular mountain-biking facility at Oleta River State Park in North Miami-Dade.

But the Virginia Key bike-trail project has instead been spinning its wheels for months, in large part due to dickering between the city and Miami-Dade County, which share ownership of the naturally rich but despoiled barrier island.

``They haven't done squat, and they haven't let us do squat,'' complained John Voss, a cycling advocate and member of the volunteer group, which he says could have finished the trails by now.

As has happened with most grand quality-of-life improvement schemes approved by the city in the past few years, from promised new parks to waterfront makeovers in Coconut Grove and Virginia Key, the seemingly straightforward bike-trail project has proved harder and taken much longer to realize than advertised by optimistic officials.

The bike-trail idea received broad public support during the more than four years it took the city to finalize a controversial conceptual plan to transform several hundred despoiled acres of Virginia Key into nature and recreational parks.

In fact, city commissioners, led by Chairman Mark Sarnoff, whose district includes the island, gave the trail project an enthusiastic green light last year, a good eight months before they approved the broader Virginia Key plan in July.

ONE OF THE WORST

This year, Bicycling magazine, which in 2008 had named Miami as one of the worst three U.S. cities for cyclists, cited the Virginia Key trail project -- along with the city's new bicycling master plan -- as a factor in elevating the city to its list of 50 most pedal-friendly towns.

The idea is for six to seven miles of winding trails for nonmotorized bicycles to be carved out atop mountains of dirt that were dumped on the island's north corner, which is owned by the city, after bay-bottom dredging years ago. The resulting artificial terrain makes the area, known as North Point, which has been overtaken by invasive plant species, ideal for mountain biking, advocates and planners say.

Supporters say it would take a small crew and a backhoe operator no more than five weeks to clear brush and build the trails, which would skirt a few areas that contain native plant species.

``This is a piece of land that has been abandoned, and we can turn it into a park for people to use, at almost no cost to the taxpayers,'' said Dario Perez, an attorney and cycling advocate who has been doing pro-bono legal work on the project.

A group of volunteers who built and maintain the Oleta trails would do the same on Virginia Key. The city paid advocate Bernard Riviere, who laid out the Oleta trails, $5,000 to draw up plans for North Point.

The rest was to come from volunteer labor and in-kind help from Miami-Dade County -- which agreed to provide the help, including a backhoe and some workers, in exchange for the city's letting it use a piece of North Point for planned new lines from the adjacent wastewater treatment plant to Fisher Island and Miami Beach.

Instead, after several meetings, volunteers and city officials say, the county appeared to back off its pledge. Miami-Dade officials now may want to place fill from the planned Port of Miami dredging on North Point, thus saving the cost of testing it for contaminants and dumping it offshore.

UNCLEAN FILL

But city officials say they don't want potentially unclean fill -- which ruined North Point years earlier -- again dumped on the island when they are trying to undo decades of ecological abuse.

``The county always wants to get something out of this,'' complained Sarnoff. ``They're always bullying you to do something. It's always this and then that. I don't get it.''

Miami-Dade Commissioner Carlos Gimenez, whose district includes the key, said he would prefer the cyclists wait a couple of years until the question of how to dispose of the dredging material is settled.

Gimenez said the fill could prove useful if the county needs material to cap a nearby old garbage dump that would be reclaimed for use as a park under the Virginia Key master plan.

``We were trying to work things out a little more logically,'' said Gimenez, who has been a strong supporter of cycling on the key. ``I want to see maybe getting those things coordinated so that we start filling the landfill and, at the same time, we can start working on the mountain-bike trails.

``Otherwise the mountain bikers may end up doing something, then having to undo it.''

But, he added: ``I'm not going to stop them. If they want to go ahead now, that's fine.''

TAKING A CHANCE

That's a chance the city and the cyclists say they'll take.

To get the ball rolling and make up for the loss of the county contribution, Mary Jane Mark, owner of Mack Cycle and Fitness in South Miami, has pledged up to $10,000 for the North Point project. Perez has secured a heavy equipment contractor and has drawn up an agreement with the city he says would allow work to begin in as little as a week.

Meanwhile, the city's bike coordinator, Collin Worth, has pledged to get the agreement approved. He said he is lining up a concession for bike and helmet rentals and trying to get city parks workers to begin some clearing of the overgrown area.

``I'm optimistic,'' Mark said. ``If we can get four years' use out of it with a minimal investment, that's better than nothing. I see this land that's been sitting here for 20 years, and it's not pristine, and people could be using it. This is a win-win for the property.''