Neighborhood Transformation

Neighborhood Transformation
CitiStates Report:
Time Running out to Find Mass Transit Plan

By Neal Peirce
Web-posted: 4:43 p.m. Dec. 9, 2000


Arguments about transportation in South Florida seem endless. Numbers fly across the table like weapons. Solutions are raised and battered by rebuttals. Nonetheless, two things remain true: Strategies stuck on the cars-and-roads model will prove hopelessly insufficient. And the biggest challenges can only be met with regional solutions, strategies that stretch across all three urbanized counties.

In weeks of interviews, nearly no one contradicted those conclusions. But the most feverish activity is still about road expansion. That's where the state's new transportation dollars are directed. Local efforts such as the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority are doing everything possible to use pricing (tolls) to manage demand and the revenues to relieve bottlenecks on a few highways. Where in the region is it possible to make an official plan to create more transportation choices? Where is it conceivable to plan across county lines? Federal transportation law requires "metropolitan planning organizations" to decide on every region's priorities in spending federal, and often state, funds. But South Florida is stuck in a model organized county by county. Three MPOs for one region. While these do add other officials and citizens to the various county commissioners that designate themselves for this role, decisions are understandably trapped in county politics. The good news on this front is that at least some officials in all three counties are actively seeking a regional approach to transportation. It may not sound like much, but an entity called the "Regional Transportation Organization" has formed and holds serious discussions across county lines on regional solutions. It's staffed by the professionals at Tri-Rail. FDOT is helping out. Citizen activists have added a new and urgent sort of leadership.

If this group can agree on some formula, roadway bottleneck cures and moving aggressively to transit solutions, then the time will be ripe to organize a serious hunt for money, and for the best ideas. Don't write off the private sector as the source of either. No one doubts the eventual necessity of trips to Tallahassee to finance a full system. And that won't be easy. We can't imagine the state coughing up the requisite match to get the federal funds. So could the counties pay? State law permits them to add up to one cent in sales tax, on a vote of the people. The last time that was tried was July of 1999 and the people of Miami-Dade said no. Maybe they were saying "no" to giving their scandal-plagued government more money, as pollsters said afterwards. But we also found few citizens who thought there was any plan out there worthy of their confidence.

Net result: stalemate.

At some point, the collective legislative delegation of South Florida perhaps can find the will to unite on this issue. Perhaps there will come a time when the devastating effects of traffic on lives, air and quality of life cannot be ignored any longer. A time when elected officials grasp the reality that massive road-building is neither feasible nor effective. Maybe ... maybe ... they will then head to Tallahassee with a different message: That the state should use South Florida as a laboratory to see what happens if you invest more transportation dollars in transit than roads, or at least make a 50-50 split. That's what Illinois just did to combat gridlock in the Chicago region. South Florida traffic is already worse than Chicago's. Some officials around the state already get it. Leon County Commissioner Bob Rackleff told a National Association of Counties meeting in March that the current push to build even more roads represents "a drag on our economic competitiveness." He points out that Florida doesn't refine any oil, and with its fixed tax rate on gasoline, profits nothing from rising fuel prices. Meanwhile, citizens are denied transportation choices. Any sober look at the numbers suggests that balancing investments is the only fair approach. Ah, but that would be a huge subsidy for transit, some say. Just check a few transportation economists such as Robert Cervero of UCLA. Cervero points out that in mid-1990s dollars, "Totaling the unpaid hidden costs of accidents, pollution, social disruption, global climate change, and other externalities puts the motoring subsidy at $2,000 a year for every man, woman and child, or about $5,000 per vehicle." Others point out this is a subsidy somewhere between $4 and $9 a gallon, if anyone had to pay it directly.

Economists are quick to add the impact of car-dependence on the household budget. The annual cost to own and operate the hugely popular SUVs is topping $10,000 a year, enough purchasing power to buy a house costing more than $100,000 at 8 percent interest for 30 years (not to mention close to $3,000 in mortgage and tax subsidies to the homeowner).

Over and over we were told: "If the legislators from South Florida took a united stand on any of this, they would be hard to beat." Just imagine capacity for building a serious transit system if those legislators found common purpose with some from the Tampa-Orlando corridor and Jacksonville, too.

Readers may see that as naive, totally beyond belief. With a third of your voting population over 65, many approaching years when driving won't be an option, failure to build alternate mobility may prove to be the naive position.

As the traffic grows, time is running out to find a regional plan and a way to fund it.