Firing won't derail streetcar project, Miami staffers insist
By Risa Polansky
The firing last week of Mary Conway as Miami chief of operations is not expected to affect downtown's streetcar project or other projects she had overseen, staffers say.
City capital-improvement and transportation heads are to cover her duties as the city begins a "broad search" to find a replacement, said Gilbert Cabrera, executive advisor in the city manager's office. "Nothing is going to change," he said. "Everything is going to move forward as scheduled."
Ms. Conway's firing came after the arrest of 11 staffers allegedly running a private business from the Capital Improvements and Transportation Department, which she once directed and later oversaw after being promoted to operations chief last year.
She had been under fire after $38 million in overruns in the city's bond program came to light this year.
To increase the department's efficiency, City Manager Pete Hernandez in April hired Ola Aluko and David Mendez as director and assistant director, respectively.
They and Roger Hernstadt, former Miami-Dade County capital-improvements director hired this week as Mr. Hernandez' chief of staff, will fill the operations chief's duties until Ms. Conway is replaced.
The hunt for a new chief is to begin "as soon as possible — this week, next week," Mr. Cabrera said. While the scope of the search has yet to be determined, the plan is to look within and beyond city staff, he said.
Ms. Conway had a hand in many projects, from capital improvements to the proposed $200 million streetcar system, a long-discussed and sometimes controversial endeavor in the works since 2004.
Ms. Conway, who declined to comment, largely served as the face of the streetcar proposal as a lead advocate and spokesman, but her dismissal is not expected to disrupt planning and implementation, said Lilia Medina, project manager.
"I've been project manager on the project since its inception, so we are proceeding to follow our work program," Ms. Medina said. "There is no change."
City commissioners in 2005 directed staff to proceed with preliminary planning of a trolley system, but the current commission has yet to vote to go ahead with a project.
A streetcar system is a pet project of Mayor Manny Diaz, and staff plans are well under way with "preliminary engineering," such as a topographical survey and preliminary track design, "90% complete or being completed," Ms. Medina said.
A request for qualifications for a design and construction team is to go before the commission for approval in December along with a budget scenario and the state's environmental-impact analysis.
The analysis is a prerequisite for an expected $100 million contribution from the Florida Department of Transportation.
Plans for the rest of the funding are in flux as staffers await commissioners' approval on a public-private partnership and expected input from the private sector during the request-for-qualifications process, said Nick Serianni, a consultant on the project.
But some of the money is likely to come from the city's share of the county's half-cent transportation sales tax and revenue generated through the system — including fares, advertising on cars and possible concessions at stations.
Another possibility is use of community-redevelopment funds, he said, although city commissioners, sitting as the redevelopment agency, voted to prohibit that in March.
City officials, including Ms. Medina and Ms. Conway, went abroad in April for networking and project research and attended sessions with global bankers, international contractors, vehicle manufacturers and legal firms as well as Madrid and Paris government transportation arms.
"From our trip, we are receiving interested-party calls from Paris, from Japan, from Spain, from firms positioning themselves in Florida from abroad to be involved in the project "from the contracting to the public-private partnership," Ms. Medina said.
In addition to losing Ms. Conway as a major proponent, the project has lost some of its biggest voting supporters.
Johnny Winton, who was pro-streetcar, was replaced by another trolley fan, Linda Haskins, after being removed from the city commission last year after an altercation with police. But Ms. Haskins later was ousted by Marc Sarnoff, who ran for the commission seat on an anti-streetcar platform.
Still, city staff is moving forward and projects a July 2012 opening date, although, Ms. Medina said, segments of the route could begin running earlier.
The streetcar is designed to connect downtown activity centers, businesses and residential communities.
Its proposed route runs east of the Miami River, serving Government Center through the Entertainment District, Wynwood, Midtown Miami, the Design District, Overtown and the Health District/Civic Center.