Mayor gutsy in sticking his neck out for 836 extension
Written by Michael Lewis on June 20, 2017
As road commutes take longer each day yet new mass transit drifts farther and farther off into the unfunded future, Mayor Carlos Giménez has taken the tough but logical step of asking Miami-Dade commissioners to override a vote to roadblock a new expressway link from West Kendall into downtown.
The extension of 836 for a 15-mile curve west and then into South Dade – an extension to be funded not by taxpayers but by tollpayers on five roadways run by the state-authorized Miami-Dade Expressway Authority – seems like a godsend to weary motorists who drive two hours or more to downtown Miami jobs.
Unlike the county’s Transportation Planning Organization and the county itself, the expressway authority says it has revenues to repay borrowing and interest to be able to build the expressway, easing the pressure of daily traffic growth until – and if – rail can push into that area and cash can be found to operate that transit at capacity.
But a county commission committee voted 3-2 last week against allowing the expressway authority to go ahead because some of the road would be west of the Urban Development Boundary that denies intense developments in environmentally sensitive areas.
While the highway itself wouldn’t push the boundary west, environmentalists and others worry that if the roadway was there, commissioners wouldn’t resist pressures to then bend the development boundary to allow intense uses where they don’t belong.
That legitimate concern must not be the final word.
If the majority of 13 commissioners vote against extending an expressway that everyone realizes is vital to this county, they will be saying that they and their colleagues wouldn’t have enough self-control to resist lobbyists who would entreat them to push urban development into ecologically sensitive areas around a new expressway.
That puts the burden on commissioners not to deny vital transportation yet to bar unwarranted development. Don’t commissioners think they can muster that strength?
The mayor thus is right to ask them to reconsider and allow an expressway that could in fact do minimal damage in spots in order to make hundreds of thousands of lives better every day by speeding traffic not only on the extension of 836 but, by removing tens of thousands of cars, easing travel on the Palmetto Expressway and South Dixie Highway as well.
It’s a tradeoff. An expressway, no matter how carefully built, as it must be, is not pristine nature. And if we hadn’t developed this county far from the urban core as we have, our natural environment would no doubt be better than it is today.
But not using offered toll money – again, at no cost to anyone but expressway users – to begin today to alleviate rapidly worsening congestion because we would rather wait until we can find enough money and a non-existent right-of-way to build a rail line is a bad bargain, even if nature might be left a bit greener.
Even if we could afford rail, we’d have to find other money to run it. Note that this month the county cut bus and rail runs by $24 million because it vastly overestimated fare income. So where is the source to keep new rail running even if we could build it?
Like the three commissioners who voted against the gift highway, we’d prefer rail. It’s better ecologically. Unfortunately, we don’t have money to build it or operate it and there’s no timetable for when we will find the money.
County officials must continue pushing for six rail corridors that would give the county a complete transit network. It’s vital.
But even if rail linked West Kendall to downtown Miami today, we’d still need the proposed expressway, just as we need Dixie Highway running parallel to Metrorail from Dadeland to downtown today. Rail and cars are not mutually exclusive.
Truth is, we need every bit of mobility as soon as we can get it.
So Mayor Giménez is on the mark in supporting an expressway extension – one funded outside of the county’s budget – even as he supports both the SMART plan for mass transit and preservation of our ecological patrimony.
Effective governing requires hard choices to balance competing interests. The extension west and then south of 836 is guaranteed to improve hundreds of thousands of lives and become an economic engine in southwest Miami-Dade without doing untoward harm in other ways.
The mayor will run afoul of absolutists pushing for only mass transit and others who say any environmental impact is unthinkable.
His position, however, requires the wisdom and courage to find middle roads that provide the most collective benefit while doing the least harm. An 836 extension funded by the expressway authority wins on both scores.