Regional alliance maps plans to unite South Florida's legislative delegations
By Frank Norton
Despite controlling a massive chunk of tourism revenue and nearly 40% of the state legislature, South Florida struggles to create the synergies that could strengthen it into a single robust market, according to a relatively unknown group whose mission is gaining steam.
South Florida Initiatives, an alliance of business and civic leaders from Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach that promotes regional cooperation, met last week at Nova University to map out strategies to create a unified legislative delegation - one they say will focus on shared issues such as transportation, marketing and education. The group grew out of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce and was formalized about a year ago.
The strategy-building process is in the formative stages, but members of the initiatives insist it is key to building a unified regional agenda with enough weight in Tallahassee to push South Florida to the top of the legislative priorities. South Florida is home to 31% of the state's population but remains a "donor region," getting back a fraction of each dollar sent to the state government, the Florida Department of Transportation reports. That fact is indicative of how other regions out-compete South Florida for state dollars, initiatives members say.
"Our combined delegation makes up nearly 40% of the vote in Tallahassee. We could get anything we wanted if we could learn to work together on a united political agenda. But we don't, and other regions like Jacksonville and Orlando jump on those opportunities," South Florida Initiatives' transportation chairman Allen Harper said.
More than any issue, initiatives members say, transportation desperately needs attention, so the alliance is pushing to create a Regional Transportation Authority that would combine marketing, management and political authority under one roof. Such a body would also develop a comprehensive regional transportation policy - something initiatives members say is crucial to accessing federal matching funds for any future projects.
"Transportation policy is fundamental to strengthening regionalism because it's something that doesn't start or stop at county lines. We have huge flows of people across the tri-county area and we need to develop solutions that reflect that geography," said South Florida Initiatives Chairman and real estate executive Philip Blumberg.
The Texas Transportation Institute at the University of Texas ranks Miami-Dade County the 13th most traffic-congested metropolitan area in the US, while Fort Lauderdale and Orlando place 21st and 30th respectively. The same national study, however, ranked Fort Lauderdale ninth on the Congestion Burden Index, which factors in a region's lack of transportation alternatives.
"We certainly do have a regionwide transportation crisis," conceded Miami-Dade transit director Danny Alvarez.
But policy analysts say shared needs across the region have failed to unify South Florida's fragmented political constituencies, with local viewpoints often pitting counties and cities against each other when vying for investment.
"For too long the three counties have been thinking they're competing against each other. They're not. They need to compete together against the rest of the world. They need to pull together realizing that this is one market," said Mr. Harper, who is also the chairman and CEO of Esslinger Wooten Maxwell realtors.
Transportation experts say that without regional cooperation, South Florida's traffic congestion will ultimately drive up the cost of goods and services across the region and weaken its competitive standing among other major metropolitan areas.
US Census Bureau figures show more than 15% of commuters in South Florida spend at least 90 minutes commuting to and from work each day.
According to Joel Volinski, a research director at the University of South Florida's Center for Urban Transportation Research, the tri-county area has "outgrown the organizational structure meant to deal with congestion" - a fact that will have far-reaching social and economic consequences, he said.
"The added cost of doing business can be so tremendous that a region will be unable to attract new businesses and employees. It'll be too jammed up," Mr. Volinski said.
Most policy analysts support Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas's push for a dedicated transportation fund using proceeds from a proposed half-cent sales tax. But, those tax revenues would be for Miami-Dade alone, leading initiatives members to fear South Florida as a region could still lose out on state and federal funding if a comprehensive region-wide policy is not soon developed.
Mayor Penelas could not be reached for comment, but senior adviser Sandy O'Neil said he is focusing "immediate attention" on transportation funding for Miami-Dade and the region. The proposed half-cent sales tax could appear on the county's November ballot.
Other efforts topping South Florida Initiatives' agenda include further integrating higher education with the business communities and creating unified marketing messages to pitch the tri-county region as a single market. The success of these efforts will rest on the region's ability to forge legislative consensus in Tallahassee, the group says.
The regionalism topic and goals of the South Florida Initiatives will figure prominently during this weekend's Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce Goals Conference in Palm Beach County. At least two sessions will deal with building legislative cooperation among South Florida delegates.
"Our next horizon is the push for cooperation at the legislative level," the initiatives education chairwoman Mary Lou Tighe said.
In addition to members of the chamber and South Florida Initiatives, Sunday's session on regional legislative cooperation are likely to be attended by Broward County Chairwoman and State Rep. Stacey Ritter; Palm Beach County delegate Chet Atwater and Miami-Dade delegate and State Sen. Kendrick Meek. This year's three-day conference, Ms. Tighe said, will probably set the initiatives' agenda and meetings schedule for the coming months.
"We need to get the business community together to decide what needs to happen on a regional level and then fund the politicians that are going to support those causes. Otherwise we're simply rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, and we'll become an obsolete economic region," Mr. Harper said.
Chairman Blumberg agrees: "We are far better off together than we are separate."