Proposed walking, bicycle trails under Metrorail get up to $15M from Coral Gables

The Underline, the proposed linear park project beneath the Metrorail from downtown through South Miami, will get another $15 million in funding after the Coral Gables City Commission voted unanimously Tuesday to contribute to its construction. But commissioners say the city’s funding, which had been under discussion for two years, won’t raise taxes for Gables residents.

The money for the project will come from impact fees, which developers already pay to fund local amenities when they build projects in the area. It will likely take about next five years for the city to collect the $15 milllion from those fees, said Commissioner Vince Lago, who sponsored the proposal.

Though other developments along the corridor have drawn criticism from residents concerned about increased foot traffic, the Underline funding passed 5-0 without public opposition at Tuesday’s commission meeting.

The project would convert 10 miles of concrete paving beneath the elevated track into a lush walking and biking trail. Friends of the Underline — the nonprofit group leading the project — is relying on both private partners and the county parks department to build the trail in segments that aren’t adjacent.

The additional money doesn’t speed up the process for planning and building sections of the trail. But the money does bring the total raised for the Underline to just $15 million shy of the projected $100 million price tag, said Meg Daly, who founded Friends of the Underline. Daly, a Gables resident, said the city’s contribution will help build a green, walkable public space that the Miami area currently lacks.

“This is a barn-raising,” she said after the vote. “This is one of the rare moments where public and private interests align.”

Miami-Dade’s bid for its own version of other cities’ rail-centered public spaces — in the mold of New York City’s High Line, or Atlanta’s Beltline — has already been four years in the making.

Daly founded Friends of the Underline after she thought up the idea of converting the Metrorail path into a public park in 2013. Last September, the group secured its largest lump of funding from the city of Miami, which pledged $50 million through a similar deal drawing money from development funds. Miami-Dade County contributed another $6 million, and various other sources, including private partners and the state, have added $14 million more.

The project — which is planned underneath the Metrorail tracks from the Brickell to Dadeland South station — is scheduled to break ground first in the Brickell portion of the park with art installations, an outdoor gym and a dog park, all threaded together by a pair of trails for pedestrians and cyclists.

Construction is expected to begin on that segment near the end of 2019, though private partners have pledged to begin construction on smaller segments of the urban trail further south next year.

The portion of the proposed park that cuts through the Gables — about 2 1/2 miles, according to Daly — will eventually pass in front of the University of Miami and near the controversial, mixed-use Paseo de la Riviera project, which is expected to help pay for the Underline project with its impact fees.

Several supporters filled the Gables’ narrow commission chambers Tuesday morning in favor of the funding proposal, citing a need for a walkable public route and green spaces in Miami-Dade. Though development has been a contentious issue in the neighborhoods southeast of the Underline’s path, no one spoke out against the funding proposal at the commission meeting.

Daly speculated that the project’s several public meetings in the two years before Tuesday’s vote might have swayed otherwise reluctant neighborhood members. The group participated in several Sunshine and public meetings before the vote, and Daly said the organization also stationed people outside Publix stores to solicit opinions.

The Friends of the Underline has applied for another $5 million in state funding, and Daly said the group is still debating how it will raise the remaining $10 million to hit the final $100 million price tag for construction.

To pay for the maintenance and management of the completed project, organizers are also discussing building an endowment from public and private donations, Daly said.

But the project still has several more phases to go: The Brickell Backyard section, which will stretch from the Miami River Greenway connection to Coral Way, needs to begin the permitting process this winter before construction can begin, Daly said. Design of the remaining seven-mile stretch of the park also has to be completed before firm dates for construction can be set.

“Vince Lago already emailed me asking, ‘When are you going to deliver?’ ” Daly joked a few hours after the vote, adding that interest in the project remains high. “The draw of this project is there’s something for everyone.”