Tri-county leaders stress importance of regional transportation authority, combined funds
By Jaime Levy
A group of business leaders, government officials and civic activists whose interests span South Florida have agreed to put the pedal to the metal when it comes to devising a regional solution to gridlock.
During the next three months, the Regional Transportation Organization Board will take the lead on implementing strategies - mapped out at Jan. 11's South Florida Regional Transportation Summit - that call for a new regional transit authority. By the self-imposed deadline, the board intends to determine a model and identify steady sources of funds for the suggested organization.
"The RTO very strongly believes that to effectively meet demand is to begin to act on the transportation issue in the region in a new way - a way that will affect everyday behavior of the people in our communities," said Palm Beach County Commissioner Carol Roberts. "We need to put aside parochialism. Only through an RTA can we begin to address the issue."
The notion of a regional authority with additional powers has been a hot issue for several months, with the Broward County Board of Commissioners, the individual Broward and Palm Beach metropolitan planning organizations and the three-county Tri-Rail Authority endorsing the idea. Miami-Dade planners discussed the issue in the fall, but haven't returned to it, said transportation systems specialist Wilson Fernandez, and the Palm Beach County Board of Commissioners deferred the issue. Miami-Dade's commission has not yet picked up the topic.
In Miami-Dade, a mid-December grand jury report criticized the lack of large-scale mass transit and urged the county to find a dedicated source of funds for a project that could invigorate the system. The grand jury also recommended that the county explore a regional transportation authority.
"The overarching mission should be to design and implement a transportation system that makes Miami-Dade County, and if possible all of Southeast Florida, the model for others to follow," the jury reported.
One specific goal mentioned at the transportation summit's closing session was for the area's four official transit-related bodies - the Regional Transportation Organization and three metropolitan planning organizations - to meet in the next three months to hammer out a governance model, implementation plan and funds for a new transportation authority. Suggested by Assistant Miami-Dade Manager Bill Johnson, who moderated the summit's surface transportation session, the goal also included presenting recommendations at a joint meeting of all three counties' commissions within the same timeframe.
"There's been a lot of hard work on the part of the various three counties and the RTO, but we need to go back to the drawing board and figure out how in the world we can get a governance structure that everyone can agree to, and a way to have consensus on the money going into the pot and how it is distributed," Mr. Johnson said in an interview after the summit.
Sources of funds, said several summit participants, are critical to ensuring that plans for improved regional transit will be enacted.
Carolyn Dekle, executive director of the South Florida Regional Planning Council and moderator of the summit's track on integrating transportation and land use, said the region must consider transit as part of master planning to ensure that strategies are effective.
"Before we start transportation projects, we need to have a vision of what we want to look like as a region," she said. "We need to ensure land use is driving transportation investments."
A good transportation system, said many summit participants, is the cornerstone of a thriving region - both for personal comfort and economic development.
"There seems to be a universal desire to take this community to the next level. One of the obstacles to reaching that goal is transportation," said Chris Wood, president of the Broward Alliance, the county's economic development agency. "Companies here are evaluating their future, evaluating their locations, deciding if they want to be in South Florida. Time is money - if we have gridlock in South Florida, companies feel they can't get their employees to work in a time-efficient manner. If our region becomes too expensive in which to operate, they leave."
SunTrust Bank President Ramiro Ortiz, also chair of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, emphasized a need for private sector involvement in the drive to eliminate gridlock.
"To have a unified South Florida delegation in Tallahassee, we need unified local government and a unified local business community," he said. "There's a sense of urgency."