Miami Herald

Miami-Dade County recently hit the brakes on upgrading thousands of intersections with cameras and computers to calculate the best time for a green light to flick on and keep traffic moving.

Friction over a county contractor doing that work is on the verge of imploding a deal that county commissioners approved in 2020 to create a computerized signal system that would run every traffic light in Miami-Dade on constantly adjusted schedules aimed at reducing congestion.

Commissioners are set to vote Tuesday on turning over the work to a rival company and starting fresh on bringing the kind of synchronized traffic-light system that was first promised to voters in 2002 during the referendum that created the county’s half-percent transportation sales tax.

“This has taken too long,” Oliver Gilbert, chair of the County Commission, said at a committee meeting last week.

READ MORE: Fighting Miami-Dade’s traffic war, one green light at a time

The potential firing of the current smart-light contractor, Munich-based Yunex Traffic, sets up another challenge in Miami-Dade’s uphill effort to improve commuting times with “smarter” technology at 2,900 intersections. County administrators ordered Yunex to stop its work on March 5, and in a memo Monday night, Mayor Daniella Levine Cava recommended terminating the company’s contract and bringing in a replacement to complete the work.

The procurement drama adds another friction point for drivers at the mercy of a county network of traffic lights that could be better.

A May 2023 county report concluded that 22% of the intersections in Miami-Dade had faulty detectors used to accelerate a green light when a vehicle pulls up to an intersection that otherwise runs on a programmed schedule. The Yunex contract was supposed to make it easier to maintain the detection system through upgrades and reduce the need for repair calls, according to the report.

Commissioners won’t make a final decision on the fate of the smart-light contract Tuesday, but they are set to vote on a proposal made last week by Commissioner Kevin Cabrera to have Levine Cava negotiate a new deal with a Hialeah company, Horsepower Electric, that lost the job to Yunex in 2020.

That company already holds local traffic-light contracts and was part of a 2016 county pilot project that installed smart-signal equipment on some Miami-Dade corridors.

The most recent campaign finance data, ending Dec. 31, shows Horsepower corporate officers also made campaign donations to commissioners, including $20,000 in November to Gilbert’s political committee, Common Voices, and $10,000 last year to Cabrera’s Dade First committee, as of Dec. 31. The Miami Herald could not find records of Yunex executives donating to commissioners, and representatives said the company does not give to candidates.

In her memo, Levine Cava said turning over Yunex’s $160 million contract to another company would cost $175 million. She did not suggest which company should replace Yunex.

Miami-Dade has already paid Yunex about $18 million, and administrators haven’t said what would happen to the roughly 800 light controllers the company has already installed if Horsepower or another competitor takes over. Jimmy Morales, the Levine Cava deputy who oversees transportation, told commissioners last week that the administration planned to handle software development itself, leaving Yunex’s replacement tasked only with upgrading signals with smart-light hardware.

The proposed quick turn to Horsepower had some commissioners questioning why Miami-Dade wasn’t trying harder to keep the current contract on track without a more detailed plan on how the county would manage the technology of such a complicated system.

“I have so many questions,” Commissioner Raquel Regalado said. “When you sit up here and tell me we’re going to take this in-house, my stomach hurts.”

Running late

Since Miami-Dade authorized Yunex to start work in 2021, the company has installed smart controllers at 790 intersections, well behind the target of 1,500 for the spring of 2024, according to the memo by Levine Cava. The company also hasn’t met milestones on delivering the software needed to run the adaptive-light technology that would be the main upgrade.

While Yunex acknowledges it’s behind, the company says it remains on budget and on track to provide Miami-Dade with a new smart-light system by the time the contract concludes in 2029. Company executives blame delays on poor staffing and slow action on the county side.

In a March 6 letter to Levine Cava, a Yunex executive blamed Miami-Dade and its private-sector contract manager for the hold-ups. “There are numerous outstanding issues which remain open and slow down the project considerably,” wrote Rodney Mathis, head of Yunex’s U.S. division.

The contract with Yunex was also supposed to help the county with another traffic problem: the broken detectors that are supposed to speed up a green light when triggered by a vehicle waiting at the intersection. While the county has a repair crew to tackle the faulty detectors, known as “loops,” Miami-Dade stopped employing contractors to get ahead of the pace of failing equipment after Florida passed a law restricting use of the county’s transportation tax on public works projects.

“Due to departmental funding impacts, these contracts are no longer available,” the May 2023 report from Levine Cava read. “As a result, the loop-repair crew productivity is only sufficient to keep the number of faulty loops from increasing, not decrease the number of faulty loops.”

The report cited the Yunex contract as a bright spot, with the new contract replacing underground sensors with cameras countywide, reducing the chance of the system being damaged by road construction.

Correspondence between Yunex and Miami-Dade in recent months show finger-pointing over holdups for a contract that the company’s former parent, Siemens, won in 2020 in part by submitting a bid about $80 million less than the second-place finisher, Horsepower Electric. In 2022, an Italian conglomerate now known as Mundys purchased Yunex from Siemens for $1 billion.

Last year, some Yunex controllers in county traffic signals began to fail. The company notified Miami-Dade that the lights weren’t grounded properly for electrical surges and said it would need to charge an additional $12 million to fix the issue. The county’s private-sector contract manager wrote back that Yunex should have figured out the issue ahead of bidding and made the needed upgrades part of its proposed price.

Yunex also says it has struggled to get the needed data from Miami-Dade to properly program the new smart light controllers for a countywide system that was last upgraded in 2013.

Most of the data involves the default schedule the lights use to determine when a signal should change colors if a county traffic manager isn’t tweaking the pattern. The company complained that Miami-Dade was not staffing the contract properly, with no single manager available to tackle problems as they arise.

While the county’s Information Technology Department recently assigned a project manager to work with Yunex, Mathis wrote that the “project manager has shown a lack of experience, and acknowledged in meetings with Yunex Traffic that he has no authority to make decisions to move the Project forward.”

READ MORE: Miami-Dade approves $160 million contract to create “smart” traffic lights across county

The last several months saw Gilbert, the county commissioner who said things were taking too long, pressing Levine Cava representatives to bring in Horsepower to at least take over some of the installation work as Yunex fell behind.

“We asked you to talk to them about bringing in the second-place bidder. Did you have those conversations?” Gilbert asked a transportation manager at a Jan. 8 hearing.

Josiel Ferrer-Diaz, chief of operations for the county’s Transportation and Public Works Department, responded that legal issues blocked Miami-Dade from divvying up the work that Yunex won in a bidding contest.

He said that while the agency warned Yunex in September that delays would put the company’s contract at risk, both sides made adjustments in the weeks that followed to produce more progress on the work.

“We’re seeing improvements,” Ferrer-Diaz said at the hearing. “They have kept a fairly good pace.”

This month, the administration had a different outlook.

“We reached the conclusion that this was not something we had any confidence or faith in,” Morales, the Levine Cava deputy, said last week.

Yunex’s contract runs through 2029 and was set to complete Miami-Dade’s multi-phase plan to modernize traffic lights, a main selling point to drivers during the transportation-tax campaign more than two decades ago. The tax has already funded about $160 million in improvements, including cameras and sensors at intersections, according to the most recent county spending report.

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