Don’t just plan to plan the planning of transit – get it rolling
Written by Michael Lewis on June 21, 2016
As planners plan to draw environmental plans that in six to eight months could lead to plans to fund planning for planned additions of actual Miami-Dade mass transit, proponents of that actual transit are yelling that we need less planning and more riding.
One of the people most frustrated with all the planning that planners say is a must in order to even decide to seek vital federal transportation funds to reduce Miami’s gridlock is the man who wants to bring those funds home to Miami now, US Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart.
Rep. Diaz-Balart is not just any of the 435 US House members. He’s the one member, the only one, who can help most. He chairs the subcommittee on transportation appropriation that deals with discretionary spending. His team drafts transportation spending in the federal budget – and he wants to put a major Miami transit project into the budget.
But, as he told the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce on Friday, he can’t just bring us a broad menu of funds – it has to be one project. And Miami’s Metropolitan Planning Organization, which decides what to ask for, has decided to plan for six project and not prioritize any of them.
By the time we get around to deciding, it might be too late. On a panel at the chamber’s goals conference hours later, planning organization Executive Director Aileen Bouclé said we can’t prioritize anything without at least six to eight months more studying beforehand.
Just how long do we expect Rep. Diaz-Balart to be ready and willing to help us fund our top transit choice? He ran unopposed in 2014 but this fall he has an opponent, and he certainly can’t count on the Republican presidential candidate to pull him into office. He’d look better to voters if he could get transportation money moving to us. But we have to ask, and we won’t.
That’s because in April the Metropolitan Planning Organization decided to work on six transit corridors simultaneously, thus getting everyone to support the deal. In the past, every time one corridor seemed to get rolling the elected officials of other areas made such a stink that it was sidetracked.
Think about the man out catching crabs and throwing them into a lidless bucket when a passerby came up.
“Hey, look out, the crabs are climbing up the bucket,” said the passerby. “They’ll all get away.”
“Don’t worry, they’re not going anywhere,” said the other, “they’re all Miami-Dade County crabs. As soon as one reaches the top the others will pull him back down.”
That’s what we’ve always done with mass transit. Everyone wants to be first or they won’t play – so now they’ve cut a deal that put everyone on the same schedule. In a few years we’re going to have six transit routes all planned out and only then can we start looking for private partnerships or federal money.
“Rome wasn’t built in a day,” Ms. Bouclé told the chamber transportation discussion Friday as everyone asked for just one project to get rolling forward. After six to eight months of study, she said, they can start thinking of what comes next. She wouldn’t timetable any of that.
But others were timetabling for her.
County Commissioner Esteban Bovo Jr. warned that the key local funding for transit, the half percent sales tax voters approved 14 years ago, could be in jeopardy if nothing starts. Someone is likely to champion repeal of the tax, he said, and voters would kill it if nothing begins soon.
So we have an ideally-placed congressman ready with money who needs to act soon. We have a local tax to fund projects that otherwise might disappear. And we have 2.6 million Miami-Dade residents who grow increasingly frustrated with traffic and don’t want to wait for more studies.
Then there’s new chamber chairman and Florida International University President Mark Rosenberg, who told the transportation panel that if no new transit will start in a year, a pillar of his chamber program that began Thursday has already fallen.
The generator of transit projects, the Metropolitan Planning Organization, refuses to pick a starting point. So Mr. Bovo said within two months he expects to call for a vote of the organization to start on the busway south to Florida City, because it could get moving fastest.
“One corridor is going to have to go first,” he said. And if the other Miami-Dade crabs don’t pull Mr. Bovo’s plans back into the bucket, why not start with the easiest and the fastest and do something?
All six routes on the list are worthy. Plan them simultaneously. Have them ready when opportunity appears.
Meanwhile, take the easiest step now. Take advantage of the vital positioning of Rep. Diaz-Balart. Build on the energy of Commissioner Bovo. Add the impatience of President Rosenberg, whose FIU research site in Homestead could benefit. Use the money from the transit tax before someone gets voters to repeal our only hope for strong local funding.
“The residents of Miami-Dade County are expecting movement,” Mr. Bovo pointed out.
This is a time for the Miami-Dade transportation crabs to take a lesson from the private sector.
Since 2002 the county has been dithering over a corridor in which to leverage the transit tax, but Florida East Coast Industries dreamed up its Brightline railroad to link Miami to Orlando just four years ago. Already, the eight-block-long Miami station complex is rising fast, work goes on in Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach, tracks have been upgraded, and trains are being built now to run next year.
Meanwhile, the county dithers. Four years is how long it takes to plan to seek funds – assuming that the crabs could ever let one route rise to the top of the bucket.
Mike Reininger, Brightline president, told the chamber his secret for speed: “We are unapologetically impatient,” he said. Public transportation, he said, could use “the brute force of an outside agency” – perhaps the chamber? – to get transportation rolling. And, he advised, “Be intolerant” of anything that slows it down.
Mr. Bovo had his own advice for the chamber: “Pressure your officials. Are we going to have something done this year or not?”
We won’t if we have to plan six to eight months just to decide on the next step of the planning.
It’s fine to plan all six corridors – just get one going. Who goes first is far less important than that someone goes now. Don’t let the Miami-Dade transportation crabs crab our act.