Strong chamber convoy rolls toward highway solutions
By Michael Lewis
Rarely in 20 years has the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce's annual goals conference been so tightly focused. And since attendance shot up, more clout should be chasing fewer projects and produce more vital results.
Last week's meeting at the Doral resort was unified. Almost 1,000 delegates - up 25% from last year and most since 2000 - spoke with a single voice when cataloging crying needs. Calls to improve transportation, housing and education echoed.
Of course, targets were numerous. Suggestions for chamber action hit three digits. But the big three echoed and reechoed - with calls for transportation fixes the loudest and most desperate.
Other concerns have in the past drawn near-unanimous chamber support. Two decades ago, the key issue was crime. Two years ago, focal points were a baseball stadium and creation of the Free Trade Area of the Americas.
But focus changes. Despite days of meetings, it wasn't until a gubernatorial candidate forum Sunday that mention of crime surfaced - proving that Miami-Dade, like much of the US, has climbed the ladder of concerns beyond fear.
Another shift is away from a stadium. The topic was muted until a leader commented that nobody had thought to mention it at all.
As for the free-trade area, most saw futility in seeking a headquarters until it's clear a trade area of 34 nations will exist at all.
As for today's big issues, everyone is hit by increasing time on the road. As delegate after delegate pointed out, auto bottlenecks are crimping our economy.
"Transportation is everybody's top issue right now," Jack Lowell of Codina Realty Services told the chamber's downtown task force.
"For many years, we haven't looked at it on a holistic level," Doral Mayor Juan Carlos Bermudez told the entire conference in welcoming remarks. Residents, he said, can't get in or out of their homes or to work.
But, warned Adolfo Henriques, chamber chairman, "there are no quick or cheap answers."
Most telling was when Servando Parapar, executive director of the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority, arrived well into deliberations of the chamber's transportation task force.
"I'm sorry to be so late," he told a packed room, "but the traffic got me."
There was laughter - sympathetic and nervous laughter because delegate after delegate commented on the impact of increasing congestion on business.
Alex Villoch of the Miami Herald said she is losing great employees because commutes to work take longer. She called for quick, simple fixes like policing construction zones to keep cars flowing or gradually narrowing roads in construction areas from three lanes to one rather than trying to do it all in a half-block.
All seemed to agree that to relieve growing congestion, we can't wait a decade until rail lines are built. Rather than usual calls for massive spending on ever-larger projects, delegates targeted patches and small-scale projects. Nobody can stand the wait for a final solution that in all likelihood will not be final at all. They want to get from here to there now.
Carlos Gimenez, chairman of the county's transportation committee, offered rays of hope for incremental gains - or at least for holding the line, which might be our best hope.
A port tunnel to divert trucks from downtown, for example, might be six to 10 years away if ever, so Mr. Gimenez offered patches like encouraging truckers to use the port at night. Long Beach, CA, he said, got 40% of truckers to do so just by charging them to use the port by day.
Another fix he suggested is links to Interstate 95 through Fifth and Sixth streets - unpopular with area residents but certain to move trucks out of downtown with fewer massive jams. Nobody wants truck corridors nearby, but without them, everybody suffers. That balancing act is prime in greasing the wheels of traffic.
The chamber plans a late November transportation summit focused on such quick action.
Some improvements fall into a middle range - not as far off or as costly as the vital east-west Metrorail line we could get in nine or 10 years at best, but not as fast as adding police to keep traffic moving at construction sites.
One is a planned Miami streetcar, which, city transportation head Mary Conway told delegates, could be running by early 2010. She said the city hopes to have a financing plan for it ready by September. That could help.
Another midrange reliever could be to get people out of cars and onto boats. Brett Bibeau of the Miami River Commission noted that several companies want commuter boats to ply the bay to downtown. Water travel would only be a drop in the bucket in opening up crowded highway lanes, but most solutions are just that - drops in the bucket.
Mr. Gimenez said the county might install traffic lights in which the green would flash just before turning yellow. Others talked of more policing and stiff penalties when drivers block intersections.
Mr. Gimenez also talked of having fewer bus stops per mile so stopped buses don't block traffic so often - a tradeoff that would make buses less user-friendly to make auto use more convenient, which seems to run counter to efforts to pry drivers out of their cars.
In the long term, chamber leaders argued, the one-half percent sales tax for transportation is far too little. But realistically, they recognized that until voters feel the present tax has sparked major improvements, an attempt to get more would stall worse than rush-hour traffic on South Dixie Highway.
The healthy dose of realism that permeated discourse on transportation was just that - healthy. Seldom has a civic group shown such unity, realism and determination to achieve concrete results.
That bodes well. We'll certainly look forward to that November transportation summit - that is, if we can get there through Miami's traffic.