See the USA in your Chevrolet - that is, if you can pay the way
By Michael Lewis
America's love affair with the automobile was a bargain-basement date through the last century. Once behind the wheel, the cost of a drive was negligible. Except for periodic spikes in gas prices, once we bought the car and the insurance, we felt little pain in the pocketbook.
That easy swing onto the open road has been both blessing and curse. While mobility was easy, too much of a good thing has clogged roadways with drivers who in another nation might be using rail, buses, bicycles, their feet or - horrors - staying closer to home.
But now, shocked longtime residents of Miami-Dade County have discovered that a 30-minute commute now takes an hour or more and gets longer annually. It's so bad that transportation ranks among our county's key problems.
Fortunately, more rail is planned. Unfortunately, most of it is a decade or more in the future.
Also fortunately, more and more housing is being built close to jobs in core areas ranging from downtown Miami to Downtown Dadeland, which can reduce traffic. Unfortunately, we're spreading farther into outlying areas at the same time, adding to the problem on one hand as we check it on the other.
The bottom line is that there is no miracle cure for the common traffic jam, which is as ubiquitous as the common cold and just as annoying. As in cold treatments, all we can do in Miami-Dade is alleviate symptoms. The illness just has to run its aggravating course.
How do you alleviate symptoms?
Add roads - where there's room.
Add lanes to present roadways - where there's room.
Improve access by redesigning one-way and two-way traffic flows - where it works.
Entice more riders onto our present rail system - Metromover use doubled in the past three years, so something is working.
All of these, unfortunately, are like aspirin - they alleviate symptoms, but as population grows, the malady reappears. We cannot build and redesign and reroute fast enough to keep ahead of the county's growing floods of visitors, residents and needs.
Still, if you've got a cold, you take something to feel better. You reach eagerly for the latest nostrum even though it's not a cure. You just hope to feel better for a while.
In that category is the plan from the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority for open-road tolling that would let you zip past toll plazas without slowing while extracting a fee from your electronic wallet as you fly by.
As toll-plaza traffic flows faster, the authority plans to get paid by every driver and use the added funds to build, expand and speed traffic on as many expressways as possible, with one expenditure being the $50 million to $70 million the new system will cost.
Right now, says authority Executive Director Servando Parapar, only 28% of the half-million daily riders on the authority's five expressways are paid.
Not that 72% cheat at toll plazas. But on roadways like State Road 836, you pay going east only. The ride west is free. And even coming east, you can ride free for miles and exit before hitting the lone toll area.
The authority wants everyone to pay for every expressway mile they drive, and its board plans early next year to decide just how much that should be - at one time, it was estimated at 7.2 cents per mile.
Also in authority plans is a rate scale for different lanes. The higher a lane's rate per mile, the theory goes, the fewer drivers would choose to use it so the faster they could go. That plan, which might require $1 billion in construction to implement, would directly relate speed to the driver's ability to pay - the wealthy could move faster but would pay more for the privilege.
Such added costs for expressway driving would, for better or worse, nudge us a hair closer to much of the rest of the world, where mobility is directly related to economic ability. The political system that once sought two cars in every garage is beginning to understand that unfettered mobility is no longer realistic.
That's unfortunate. It's almost un-American in a land built by settlers who set out to the west in covered wagons to establish a new nation.
On the other hand, look how long and hard that wagon train trip west really was. I'd rather drive US 1 downtown from Homestead every morning rush hour. Much rather.
As we head into a new year, we might resolve to seize every possible means to alleviate traffic problems. Build rail. Add buses. Construct roads. Increase lanes. Reroute traffic. Re-jigger tolling. Sell highway speed to the highest bidder.
Do all of that because we should. But remember that as long as population grows unchecked and spreads hither and thither, all we're buying with these expensive palliatives is aspirin. It's not a cure, but it sure can relieve pain.