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9/14/03 - Miami Herald

County is set to take on boom area's traffic woes

By David Ovalle

Biscayne Boulevard snakes about 14 miles through northeast Miami-Dade County, from the fringes of downtown Miami past the mall-gridlock in Aventura. Drive up the boulevard, undoubtedly the region's main artery, and it is easy to see why people worry about worsening traffic.

The skeletons of high-rise condominium buildings foreshadow waves of new residents who have tired of suburban commutes. Signs of redevelopment -- Starbucks, Home Depot, Office Depot -- have popped up.

Yet, public transportation here is still too weak to ease congestion.

''The buses move like turtles,'' said Noemi Baldeom, 42, as she waited for a Metrobus on Biscayne Boulevard at Northeast 79th Street. ``They never come on time, it's horrible.''

Frustrated northeast Miami-Dade commuters like Baldeom were among the targets of the campaign for the half-penny transit tax, which voters approved last year to overhaul the county's transportation system.

Now, the county is about to focus on their concerns. In the next couple of weeks, its Office of Public Transportation Management will commission a study to examine ways to improve mass transit along the northeast corridor, along the Florida East Coast Railway tracks and Biscayne Boulevard.

The study's recommendations -- whether expanding Metrorail or Tri-Rail, introducing a lighter rail system or just expanding bus service -- are probably about two years away.

But most agree that public transportation must be addressed in northeast Miami-Dade, arguably the most urban and diverse region of the county.

''It's an area that is prime for the next phase of major development,'' said Clark Turner, the city of Miami's director of transportation administration. ``It's the place where the activity is going to be taking place -- and it lacks first-class transit facilities.''

Many transit experts and politicians, like Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas, and community activists interviewed by The Herald say they favor a rail system along the FEC railway, which roughly parallels Biscayne Boulevard.

Mario Garcia, OPTM's chief planning assistant, said rail is appealing because streets will not be able to handle the expected flood of residents in northeast Miami-Dade.

''I'm afraid we're going to be pushing the envelope with anything other than light rail,'' he said. ``And even that may be pushing it.''


Northeast Miami-Dade is roughly bordered to the west by Interstate 95, to the east by Biscayne Bay, to the north by the Broward County line and to the south by the edge of downtown Miami.

The region's population, for years characterized by senior citizens, has changed. It's bigger, for one thing: Between 1990 and 2000, the population in an already dense area grew 9 percent, from 246,000 to 269,000 residents, according to census data.

The population of the area's white residents declined by 30 percent in that time. Now, more families from Caribbean nations live in cities such as North Miami and North Miami Beach.

Wealthier pockets, particularly hugging Biscayne Boulevard, continue to grow as part of the ''Eastward, Ho!'' movement. Future large-scale residential developments such as Biscayne Landing in North Miami and Buena Vista in the Wynwood neighborhood of Miami are expected to draw tens of thousands of people.

Already, population growth has strained Biscayne Boulevard.

Consider: In 1997, an average of 38,500 automobiles drove north-south each day on Biscayne Boulevard at Northeast 79th Street, according to state statistics. Five years later, that number had jumped to 48,000 daily.

''We're all in favor of public transportation, and studies in improvement would be welcome,'' said David Treece, who heads a coalition of neighborhoods and business owners in Miami's Upper Eastside. ``Now, often, studies are just that, and nothing seems to come of that.''

Indeed, northeast Miami-Dade has seen similar studies and efforts fizzle in the past.


During the energy crisis of the late 1970s and early 1980s, the county -- aided by federal money -- spent about a billion dollars to build Metrorail. Lines were slated to be built in northeast Miami-Dade.

One of the chief proponents of Metrorail then was now-retired U.S. Rep. William Lehman, who hails from northeast Miami-Dade and chaired the transportation subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee.

Despite delays and budget bungling, lines were completed from downtown through southern Miami-Dade's expansive suburbia. But Metrorail never made it to Lehman's home turf.

Support for expansion plummeted and federal dollars disappeared under President Reagan, who dubbed Metrorail a ``billion-dollar mistake.''

County, state and federal officials buoyed by the half-cent tax now maintain that the region will no longer be ignored.

OPTM planners are also launching a study to look at building a bus hub in northeast Miami-Dade, which would include park-and-ride facilities, bus pass sales, police substations and even retail stores.

Both studies will seek input from residents groups, the state and cities such as North Miami, North Miami Beach and Aventura. The northeast corridor study will include input from the FEC railway, Broward County and Tri-Rail, the regional transit system that is interested in extending service down the FEC railway.

''It's the most viable link toward regionalism,'' Mayor Penelas said. ``If we can get that corridor established and encourage Broward to continue the corridor, you've linked all the beach communities.''

Herald database editor Tim Henderson contributed to this report.