Activating dormant railroad lines, expanding Tri-Rail, making buses more efficient, encouraging the business community to lead.
These were just some of the ideas and programs that were tossed around during a panel discussion on the future of transportation in Miami on Wednesday morning. The event was hosted by the Beacon Council, a nonprofit aimed at boosting economic development in Miami-Dade County.
“Miami is a 21st century city with big city challenges and one of the biggest pressing issues is transportation,” said Donna Abood, a principal of the commercial real estate firm Avison Young and chairwoman of The Beacon Council, prior to the panel discussion.
It’s an issue that’s becoming all the more pressing by Miami-Dade County’s building boom. The discussion itself was held at The Beacon Council’s headquarters in Brickell City Tower, a 33-story office building surrounded by construction activity. Already, traffic in Miami’s Brickell area tends to move at a snail’s pace. It’ll likely get even worse when mega real estate projects like Brickell City Centre come on line, experts say.
Bad traffic is bad for business, noted Sig Birriel, senior vice president of Bank of America Merrill Lynch, a company that sponsored the panel discussion. “In fact, in a recent survey conducted for the Miami Herald, 86 percent of the South Florida businesses that responded [said that] traffic was holding the local economy back and 70 percent of those surveyed said that traffic was hurting their business directly,” Birriel declared in a brief speech to dozens of attendees.
Assembled to talk about transit were George Burgess, former manager of Miami-Dade County and the panel’s designated moderator; Miami-Dade County Commissioner Esteban Bovo, chair of the county’s transportation committee; Alice Bravo, the newly minted county director of Miami-Dade Transit; Jack Stephens, executive director of the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority, which oversees Tri-Rail; and Harold Desdunes, director of transportation development for the Florida Department of Transportation’s District Six.
Burgess, now the COO of the law firm Becker & Poliakoff, noted that the region’s congested traffic conditions are a byproduct of “our dynamic community growth experience.” Fixing it, however, won’t be an easy endeavor. “This is a very complicated issue,” he said.
It’s also costly. Expanding the 25-mile long Metrorail system will cost at least $200 million a mile, Burgess noted. Plus, waiting for assistance from the federal government could take several years, thanks to competition from other major cities, Stephens added.
Commissioner Bovo, whose district includes Hialeah, Miami Lakes, and other communities in western Miami-Dade County, is reluctant to throw more money at transit projects. He noted that county voters approved a half-penny sales tax in 2002 to enhance public transit. Instead, the tax funds were used to plug Miami-Dade Transit’s budget gaps.
“Did you ever see the movie Chicago? That old time razzle-dazzle? The county is very good at that,” Bovo said.
Still, Bovo said rail can be expanded cost-effectively. He pointed out that the CSX-owned, 11 mile rail line already spans between 137th Street in Southwest Miami-Dade County to the Miami Intermodel Center, a transit hub by Miami International Airport that connects to Tri-Rail and Metrorail. That rail line, Bovo said, is rarely used by CSX. Should the county or state obtain that rail line, commuters can travel by train between 137th Street and downtown Miami in under 35 minutes, the commissioner said.
“It would cost $100 million to activate it, total,” Bovo said. “If you were to take Metrorail out there it would cost you a billion dollars.”
Since the 1980s, Tri-Rail has ferried passengers from Miami International Airport to Mangolia Station in Palm Beach County. Unfortunately, Tri-Rail is confined to the western parts of Miami-Dade County.
But Stephens of SFRTA said his organization hopes to expand Tri-Rail to eastern Miami-Dade County. Dubbed Coastal Link, the envisioned train will span from downtown Miami to Jupiter with passenger stations in Midtown Miami, the Upper Eastside, North Miami, North Miami Beach, and Ojus. SFRTA is already negotiating with the Florida East Coast Railroad to lease the existing rail line, Stephens said. A subsidy of the FEC Railroad, All Aboard Florida, currently plans to use that railroad for passenger trains servicing the downtowns of Miami, Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach, and Orlando.
Key to making Coastal Link a reality, Stephens said, is a state-county-city of Miami-funded $70 million connection between Tri-Rail’s existing line and All Aboard Florida’s future Miami Central Station near County Hall. “It’ll be done in two years,” Stephens declared. “This is something we can all see in our lifetime.”
Coastal Link will be expensive, Stephens warned. Creating a Miami-to-Jupiter rail connection is estimated to cost taxpayers $800 million, he said. Operating and maintaining that system will cost another $150 to $200 million a year, he added.
Bravo of MDT, meanwhile, is focused on making the county’s existing transit system more efficient. That includes making the county’s bus system more “clean, safe, and reliable.”
FDOT’s Desdunes said has been seeking to collaborate with the region’s various public transportation agencies, instead of competing with them for limited tax dollars. He also urges county and city officials not to wait for federal funding. Instead, commence the studies needed to establish future transit systems now.
But for real progress to be made in transit, Bovo said action will be needed from the business community.
“There was a time in this county when business leaders and policy makers [elected officials] worked hand-in-hand and business leaders were driving the [conversation],” Bovo said. “For whatever reason that stopped.”