Will sea level and transit plans roll to Washington soon?
Written by Michael Lewis on December 6, 2016
A document just sent to county commissioners shows a clear link between Miami-Dade’s two pressing concerns for the future: sea level rise and growing traffic congestion. Now is the time to capitalize on that output.
The 31-page report points to the need for the SMART plan for six new transit legs and a feeder express bus system to integrate existing and future findings on how to create a more resilient transportation system.
At the same time, the report points to ways to shore up our roadway network to serve us better in the face of a sea level rise estimated at 6 to 12 inches by 2030 and 14 to 34 inches by 2060.
The report from resilience officer James Murley responded to a commission query initiated by Rebeca Sosa on how to use Federal Highway Administration and Florida Department of Transportation methods to assess the vulnerability of future transportation projects to sea level and hurricane threats.
One lesson of the report is that we can’t plan transportation in a vacuum. A great transportation system – or even an adequate one, which we now lack – must serve a community that has multiple challenges.
So as planners probe exact routes for the six transit legs promised in the SMART plan, the mode of transportation for each leg, how modes will link seamlessly, ridership each route might generate, operating hours, whether stations are needed and who would build them, the cost of each route, sources of government funding not only to build but to maintain each route, fares required to make each route go, and partnerships available in government and the private sector, they also must consider a host of outside factors.
One of those is impacts on areas surrounding each route – how transit will help or injure surrounding areas and in what ways, such as the division of Overtown decades ago by I-95 that shattered a thriving community.
Another factor is development and land use changes likely to parallel each route and bulge at each stop. Functional transit always creates development opportunities and business hubs but also encourages housing, included needed workforce housing in high-rise sites.
A third factor is the tax that increased land values and new development along each route will generate, funds that could be rolled into special assessment or tax increment districts to help fund or maintain new transit.
The report on resilience and transportation raises one more external factor, climatic impacts. But existing studies are general, not specific to new transit. Specific studies vital for each route should pinpoint both the impacts of future higher sea levels on that leg and its surroundings and ways to construct that transit to be functional when sea levels do rise.
SMART work programs for this fiscal year and next spell out $39.9 million in environmental documentation required for the six legs, ranging from a low of $4 million for the Kendall Drive corridor to $10 million for a corridor from downtown Miami to Miami Beach and then along the Beach from Alton Road and Fifth Street to the Miami Beach Convention Center.
Environmental impact studies are required on any major project, showing its impact on the environment. But the new county report points to a study in the other direction: the impact of the changing environment on the project itself and then how the project can minimize that impact.
In simplest terms, one question might be, should a rail line be elevated an additional three feet or so when it’s built to be sure it can function in the decades ahead or for hurricane evacuation now? It is, of course, not that simple.
The Metropolitan Planning Organization’s website says “Think Big” when developing future mass transit, and that is valid.
But the report on more resilient transportation also shows the need to think small, looking at each piece of transportation in light of sea level changes.
In that regard, the report points to seeking to “incrementally gain elevation when roads are resurfaced.” But that, the report notes, might affect surrounding areas, because roads are generally lower than their surroundings to facilitate drainage. Raising the roads could reverse drainage flows into surrounding areas.
Again, the pieces are interrelated and not as simple as they seem.
In fact, nothing in the planning either for sea level changes or to meet growing transit needs is as simple as it seems. The report on resilience and transportation notes that some studies are only partly finished and that more specific studies will be needed for each major transportation project.
At some point, however, studies must yield to concrete actions on both sea level and transportation fronts. That point should come sooner rather than later. The needs in both areas seem clear enough – and help from Washington might be growing..
In a Donald Trump era where Washington seems headed to more infrastructure spending, we need to have all of our studies ready – together with conclusions and the game plan we want to follow.
If we seek federal funds for big-ticket items, a Trump administration will not want to wait for more cogitating. We need to be ready to roll.