Transit agencies must 'think out of the box' to solve budget woes
By Risa Polansky
Transportation in Miami-Dade is a growing problem compounded by a lack of cohesive leadership and a tendency to plan without following through, candid local players told Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce members at a Transportation and Infrastructure Committee meeting last week.
We can get out of this mess, they assured — but it needs to be a team effort, and everyone must be willing to try out new solutions.
"Public road and transit agencies must think out of the box," said Maurice Ferré, a former Miami mayor and Miami-Dade vice chair of the county commission who sits now on the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority board.
The chamber invited Mr. Ferré to the event to discuss the past, he said.
But "the past has not been that good." And the present: "it's a mess."
A mess that hurts the local economy, said José Abreu, Miami-Dade Aviation Department director and 20-year Florida Department of Transportation veteran.
"The adverse economic impact of this gridlock exceeded a billion dollars a year," he said. "That's absolutely obscene."
And only planning for brand-new infrastructure — a costly, time-gobbling option — is not the answer, he said.
"We will not be able to construct ourselves out of congestion."
Maintaining existing infrastructure and the local public transit system is part of the solution, Mr. Abreu said, but reminded meeting attendees of one of the most talked-about local issues of late: a lack of funding.
A recent county report shows it would take $9 billion over 30 years to maintain current Miami-Dade transit services and build planned new projects.
To keep up the existing system would mean filling a $2 billion gap.
Commissioners last week agreed to a fare hike that officials say could close that considerably, but a planned re-vote this week could change that.
"We don't have the money to maintain what we've got," Mr. Abreu said.
He lamented what he called $60 million worth of studies for Miami-Dade's future "in a drawer."
Mr. Ferré blasted local officials for a lack of action in recent years.
"We know what we need," Mr. Ferré said. "No more studies. No more reports. Action."
On the state level, Mr. Abreu referenced the Florida Department of Transportation's Strategic Intermodal System, established in 2003 to focus state resources on transportation facilities critical to the Florida economy.
A strategic plan, adopted in 2005 and revised this summer, lays out methods for planning, fortifying and managing the Strategic Intermodal System.
"Execution is what we're lacking here," Mr. Abreu said, though he praised the plan's intentions, especially its principle of placing money where the needs are.
To push these and other plans forward, local forces must unite, the experts said.
One way to avoid mistakes of the past is "by agencies working together," Mr. Ferré said.
User fees and partnerships are the way to go, he said, lauding the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority for initiating discussions with Florida's Turnpike Enterprise for a potential joint venture.
Mr. Abreu also called for teamwork.
"If we don't pull the rope in the same direction, we're never going to get things done."
A lack of progress in the transportation sector could squash Miami-Dade's chances at becoming a major global force, said economist J. Antonio Villamil, head of the locally based Washington Economics Group and dean of St. Thomas University's School of Business.
"Transportation is economic development," he said. Allowing local transportation issues to continue to grow would be a "slow erosion of our competitiveness… speed to market is a key mega-trend, and we need to consider that."
He referenced also a tendency here to plan without following up with action.
"We have too many studies here already. We know what we need," Mr. Villamil said. "The key is going to be the political will, and the civic and business will" to push implementation.
Essential to Miami's future: the airport area intermodal center and a tunnel to the Port of Miami, he said. Building technological infrastructure is also key to allow for traffic-relief measures such as telecommuting.
And mass transit should be planned for the most congested areas in the county, he said, not simply for communities that ask for it.
"We should stop the inner battle and just get on with it." Mr. Villamil said.
Humberto Alonso, chair of the chamber's Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, asked the panelists whether local leaders have lost sight of the economic importance of transportation.
"Let me be very, very frank and explicit about that," Mr. Ferré said. "The answer is yes."
With 13 commissioners fighting for their own districts, "nobody is leading," he said. "What you have is a continuation of the status quo, and that's why we have the disaster we have."
South Florida's state legislative delegation also needs to unite, Mr. Villamil added.
All called for regional teamwork.
"There are solutions, but it has to be in a unified way, it has to be systematically, it has to be in a regional way, it has to be simplified," Mr. Ferré said.
Mr. Abreu said he also sees hope for the future.
"If we plan the work and then work the plan... I'm optimistic even though the challenges are big."