Along the road to transit gains, chamber told it’s the driver
Written by Michael Lewis on June 9, 2015
A chamber of commerce goals huddle seeking to unsnarl Miami’s traffic found no easy answer last week but got a surprise challenge from experts: Do it yourself.
The good news, experts told the Greater Miami Chamber, is that ways around the maze of barriers that block mobility do exist.
The bad news was that nobody – not taxpayers and certainly not elected officials – has the will to take the key steps: get the money and decide what to do first.
That left the chamber, other civic groups and business to do the heavy lifting – not just find money but also have the guts to prioritize new transit at the risk of offending anyone who doesn’t come first.
Diverse panelists gave the chamber advice that, stitched together, paints this picture:
No single silver bullet can slay the traffic giant. Overlapping solutions apply in varied areas, some costly and others nearly free, but the biggest bangs come from the bucks.
Funds take willpower. Politicians won’t front solutions that require anyone to pay anything.
Everyone says let Washington pay, but even were federal dollars available, so much red tape ensnarls federal transit money that it can add years to getting going – environmental studies in one case added decades to a high-priority bridge plan.
That’s why transportation leaders advised the chamber to shun federal cash if any other route exists.
One way, the chamber heard, is to slap a transit impact fee on development – the more a project benefits from nearby transportation, the higher its fee. It’s such a good idea that nobody who gets campaign donations from developers – nearly every elected official – would touch it.
Miami-Dade got a flood of dedicated transit money in 2002 from a tax we levied on ourselves, but officials promised far more than the tax could deliver and then pirated the money just to maintain what transit we already had.
Taxpayers felt so burned by the big lie that they’re not willing to put another thin dime into transit, thereby condemning themselves to traffic death by strangulation.
While that transit tax did in fact yield a needed airport link to Metrorail, the experts said we still need a big home run that cuts through the traffic tangle so the public will believe that more funds spent on mobility can actually help.
That help won’t come from Tallahassee, which is crosswise with the county, the chamber heard. And with Washington a fringe player, that leaves Miamians to fund our own new transit.
That may mean our first move must be running express buses in dedicated lanes on expressways.
But first a simple railway solution is at hand. By the end of this month the City of Miami, Miami-Dade County, community redevelopment agencies and others should sign off on a cobbled-together coalition that will bring Tri-Rail trains into the heart of Miami at a new All Aboard Florida station right beside county hall.
To do that, all the governments will kick in money along with the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority, which runs Tri-Rail, to pay for the $69 million link without the delays of federal funding.
Making that link will have detractors because it will run only north of the river. But, as the panel made clear, no single traffic-buster is going to serve everyone. The problem of “me first” prevents mobility aid. Not everyone gets to be first – though that’s the priority of politicians elected by district.
Other than asking Washington for transit cash, an alternative has problems of its own. Everyone talks of public private partnerships to finance transit, but private partners want to be repaid, with interest, for their money. It’s not a gift. So the community still must pay for the transit.
Endless studies target what to do first, but the experts last week left it in the lap of chamber members to unite behind a single mobility priority and make sure that business supports not just the mode, not just the route, but the funding method.
The panelists are right: to thin traffic, business must take a hard united stand that does not – repeat, not – promise a bit to everyone. That’s how the transit surtax fell apart before the county commission picked apart the bones.
The chamber spotlighted the problem and pointed to the only true solution: a united stand. Right after we cement the Tri-Rail link, the chamber must go on record and then lobbying hard in county hall, in Tallahassee and with voters for a single transit mode in a single corridor with a clear source of funds for the first home run.
That won’t be the final mobility project because, as panelists noted, one solution can’t fit all. Late civic leader Alvah Chapman always insisted that the chamber undertake doable deeds. This is a mighty deed, but with civic backbone it is doable.
The chamber’s own panel issued the challenge. We agree: have the courage to pick one path now that has one transit mode along with clear and full funding and then fuel that little mobility engine until it’s chugging along on its own.
Out of last week’s chamber goals, none is so needed, none so clear and none better able to rebuild chamber status than the courage to make the hard transit choice that others avoid – and then get government moving to achieve the goal.