To keep visitor dollars flowing in, get traffic flowing again
Traffic slowdowns not only are choking business and eroding our quality of life but are increasingly barriers to growing our strong hospitality industry.
While a few years ago we irrationally blamed congestion on those who vacationed or came on business, it’s now clear that more visitors merely exacerbate problems we’ve generated by skimping on mobility infrastructure.
While we’ve managed to stall traffic as never before, making Miami the seventh most congested city in the US, we are also en route to stalling growth of our visitor industry – at least, according to a report last week by Florida TaxWatch, which describes itself as “an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit taxpayer research institute and government watchdog.”
The report examined studies of roadway, airport and seaport capacities, noting that our rapid ascent to the nation’s third-most-populous state and top attraction state for visitors coupled with our growth by 900 residents daily is outpacing infrastructure that serves our visitors.
The report doesn’t worry about bedding visitors down or showing them a good time. Businesses, after all, are adept at providing hotels, restaurants and attractions. But could lack of mobility infrastructure endanger the visitor industry?
If so, our economy is in for a rough ride. US Bureau of Labor Statistics figures show that 1.125 million Floridians work in hospitality and leisure jobs, up 5.1% in 12 months and up 19.8% in a decade.
In Miami-Dade the climb is even greater, with 137,100 people in hospitality jobs in March, up 4.7% in a year but up a whopping 35.9% in a decade. That’s one of every eight non-farm jobs in the county.
Okay, hospitality jobs don’t top the pay scale at a 2013 Florida average of $43,751 according to the TaxWatch report. But what they lack in towering wages they make up for in sheer numbers. They total $49.2 billion plus in annual wages in Florida in that industry sector. Anything we do to jeopardize continued growth is perilous.
Jeopardizing steps could be as small as an attempt we report this week to reduce toll collections on Miami-Dade’s expressways because the tolls tax our wallets. No kidding – that’s the idea, get the users to pay so that we can add travel capacity. Cut tolls and we reduce the likelihood of adding capacity, leading to gridlock.
In a community obviously short on transportation infrastructure that begins with rail transportation and peoplemovers but spreads throughout the community in highway lane shortages, we’re going to have to find money to avoid even more severe congestion.
The TaxWatch report specifies that as Miami grows, “the city is likely to be faced with Manhattan-like congestion issues” – but we lack the subways that make Manhattan travel bearable. It’s roadway congestion with no escape hatch.
It’s not only internal transportation that’s in deep trouble. The TaxWatch report points to a study by think tank ENO Center for Transportation, which found that Miami International Airport is also in a crunch. The report notes that our runways could land 70 million passengers a year if we had enough internal airport capacity – but we don’t. We can only move 50 million a year through our gates.
Why is this a concern to Miami’s visitor industry? Because while only half of Florida’s total visitors come by plane, in Miami it’s 96% – think of the drive here from Georgia and the origins of our visitors and you know why. We’ve passed 40 million passengers and are likely to grow by several million a year.
The Federal Aviation Administration is forecasting congestion at the airport by 2020, which is right around the corner if we’re going to add infrastructure to ward off that jam.
The study also noted that four of Florida’s six most congested roadway stretches run near our airport, inconveniencing us daily while angering visitors who might think twice about coming back.
The TaxWatch report looked at a 2013 analysis and noted that a 5.45 mile stretch of the Dolphin Expressway can be driven in 6 minutes with free-flowing traffic but averaged 27 minutes in the worst hour of driving.
The other three: 3.15 miles of the Palmetto that took 3 minutes in free-flowing traffic averaged 17 minutes in the worst hour; 10.49 miles of the Palmetto that took 11 minutes when flowing free averaged 24 minutes in the worst hour; and 11.88 miles of Florida’s Turnpike that took 11 minutes in free flow averaged 24 minutes in the worst hour.
None of these is gridlock. But 12-mile-an-hour expressway drives are definitely not what vacationers or local drivers are looking for, and not what helps an economy grow.
Florida, says TaxWatch, is gearing for 102.7 million visitors next year. Those visitors generate about 23% of the state’s sales tax income. We love the idea of high-paid jobs and a high-tech future, but right now we have a visitor industry to protect that is still laying golden economic eggs.
For the sake of protecting those golden eggs – and for the rest of the business community and our quality of life – we need to be putting resources into transportation infrastructure now, today, in a concerted effort.
Charge to ride Metromover. Don’t choke off tolls that add road capacity. Fund a downtown Tri-Rail link. Certainly coordinate transportation planning region-wide, but don’t wait for a regional solution to add capacity however we can.
As TaxWatch points out, visitors to Florida return again and again. It’s not a once-in-a-lifetime trip. But if we want them back, they have to get around Miami easily and effortlessly.
So do we – now.