Housing is rising, residents are coming, but infrastructure ...
By Michael Lewis
Did you gasp at last week's report that Miami alone has more than 93,000 housing units planned, up 20,000 from just last summer?
That's from city records, not an estimate. Moreover, it's just within city limits. Countywide would probably top 140,000 - enough to house 300,000 more people. Almost all is new, not replacing older housing.
The business questions: Who's going to live in it all? Where are the buyers to come from?
But more importantly: How can we possibly handle such a massive influx? Where's the infrastructure?
How much can we draw from the aquifer that produces the water we use daily? The supply isn't infinite.
Even if we have supply, can the county pump it to us and carry away water we've used? Have we factored massive demand growth into our planning and budgeting?
How about electric power? FPL stumbled badly in harrowing hurricane situations. It wants to charge every customer for a dozen years to recoup costs. If FPL buckled in 2005, how will it respond in hurricane season 2010 with 300,000 added residents in Miami-Dade and new businesses to match? In fact, could FPL meet the simple daily demand for power?
How about schools: Will there be classrooms for a child or two from each of 140,000 added residences? Even if half become vacation homes or house no children, construction plans would fill schools with about 100,000 more children. Can we get the needed 4,000 classrooms and 4,000 teachers?
Or consider air quality. By adding 140,000 residences, we're adding 200,000 cars on already-congested roadways. Everyone will sit in traffic longer, emitting pollution.
Which brings us to those 200,000 cars and the roads they'll need. No way.
We just might pump water, supply power, build schools and hire teachers. But we're out of land for roads, particularly in Miami, which is where 93,000-plus residences are to rise.
Even if we forecast that because of developers' inability to build profitably, an unpredicted demand slump, rapidly accelerating mortgage rates, a hurricane season far worse than 2005 or global economic or political upheaval only half of this housing might eventually rise, we're headed for true gridlock. We say we've got gridlock now, but wait until we add 100,000 to 200,000 more cars!
There is hope - not hope that we will build more roads, but hope that we will build more rail.
As we noted last week, the city just gave the go-ahead to study a streetcar line, a key step to win federal funds to run the line between downtown and Midtown Miami.
Midtown doesn't yet exist. Ironically, it's in the old railroad yards that once served Miami very well, bringing in passengers who today arrive in automobiles that now clog our roads.
But Midtown is rising, a mix of housing and stores and jobsites. By the time rail arrives, its users will be residents and workers of Midtown and environs who otherwise would arrive in automobiles that now clog our roads.
The streetcar line would offer minor relief for the coming traffic congestion Miamians cannot yet imagine. It's only to serve a small area, and it's planned to link with no other mass transit.
In that regard, it's akin to Metrorail, whose fatal flaw was that it's a line from here to there with no spokes sticking out. Though spokes were always planned, they have yet to be built decades later.
Metrorail links in other directions are still planned. A vital east-west line would let far more people use the system far more often. But expansion is probably a decade off, trailing housing and population growth that make it crucial.
More bad news is that increasingly congested Miami Beach has rejected rail because - get this, in a tourism-driven economy - it might bring in more people. But communities along A1A are talking about traffic concerns. and the officials most opposed to unsnarling traffic won't hold office forever.
In no way could Miami-Dade handle 140,000 new housing units - or even half that - without intense pressures. But without transportation action today, we will suffer tomorrow as never before.
And without other infrastructure planning and development, more people and more demand will overwhelm us.
Housing growth won't stop until the economy or our failure to provide the infrastructure makes Greater Miami unappealing. None of us - not developers, not no-growth activists, not the rest of us - want this to occur.
That requires that we unite now to develop infrastructure to handle growth that, like it or not, is coming. The mind-bending count of 93,638 housing units in Miami alone will keep rising. Infrastructure must keep pace.