Miami takes lead in a congested drive to get there faster
By Michael Lewis
A key federal official came to the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, liked what he saw and declared the group his prime candidate to map out a drive for highway innovation.
"I declare you now the leader among metro chambers" in the race to build a federally backed model to combat traffic congestion, Tyler D. Duvall, assistant secretary for transportation policy in the US Department of Transportation, told the chamber's monthly lunch last week after he heard plans for the chamber's November transportation summit.
Winning the race to design an innovative congestion buster wouldn't earn a big federal prize - at least monetarily: The part of the federal Highway Trust Fund that pays for construction is expected to run dry in 2009. But federal support could slash red tape in construction. Mr. Duvall promised to push targeted roadways here through the pipeline to halve seven-year approval times.
But the big construction jobs - be they rail or highway - that will help us navigate our increasingly clogged county are the focus of neither Mr. Duvall nor the chamber.
The 51/2-hour Nov. 29 chamber summit at the Radisson Miami Hotel is listed as "focusing on short-term traffic congestion solutions as well as innovative ideas for the future." That fits like a glove with current US policy.
Mr. Duvall stood in for former Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, who agreed to speak and then resigned. He carried the message Mr. Mineta had been advocating: Privatize highway operations, as they were until about 150 years ago, and let operators' fees, not taxes, fund transportation needs.
"We are like a poker game," Mr. Mineta told the Washington Post last month. "We are inviting more people to the table and saying, "Bring money when you come.'"
The first US highway turnover came a year-and-a-half ago when an Australian firm paid $1.8 billion to run the Chicago Skyway for 99 years. Last August, that firm bought the 14-mile, privately owned Dulles Greenway running from the Washington airport into Virginia. Last month, Indiana turned over its entire toll-road system for 75 years to an Australian-Spanish partnership for $3.8 billion. New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Virginia are getting in on the act.
Now Mr. Duvall's department is hunting for a metro area, spearheaded by its chamber of commerce, that will integrate all transportation to rein in congestion, charge more to drive in peak times or to travel faster and generate community-wide flex-time employment that levels the sharp peaks in rush-hour road use.
As he tells it, the key problem is predictable congestion - the kind that comes from peak uses or bottlenecks as opposed to jams during unpredictable accidents, for which a solution is less visible.
The federal aim is to visit chambers of commerce in the most congested cities and seek cooperation in solving the problem, helping to define the roles of states, the federal government and business in solutions. Last week's trip here was the first - so, immediately, we're in first place.
Why pick a chamber rather than target local government? "The business community is the only people who are organized to advocate for reform," Mr. Duvall said.
Let's hope he's right about organization and willingness of business to advocate. Chamber Chairman Adolfo Henriques - who also runs a railroad - told the chamber lunch that no concern is more critical here than transportation. But backbone will be needed to push for tough innovations.
Specifically, the federal department is backing variable pricing for highway driving. It wants an urban partnership agreement for variable pricing paired with business commitments for flex scheduling of employees countywide and for increasing telecommuting. Any new highway construction in Florida, he says, will be toll roads. Drivers will have to pay to play.
Two facilitators, Mr. Duvall says, can reduce congestion: transponders and license-plate recognition devices that permit variable tolls without slowing traffic coupled with a sudden global demand to acquire US highway systems because of our legal stability, our growth and the sheer size of our highway system. Investors, he says, are targeting booming Florida, Texas and California, seeking 9% to 12% annual returns.
The chamber meeting marked the federal agency's first overture to Miami-Dade, and it got quick action. Right after Mr. Duvall's talk, Carlos Gimenez, who chairs the county's transportation committee, chatted with him and promised to come to Washington in September to initiate concrete talks. He hopes chamber and Beacon Council leaders will join him.
That would be a great start. While the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority has been talking about variable pricing on its five roadways and other innovative ways to let the marketplace smooth traffic, linking the entire transportation network would multiply value. Otherwise, traffic just shifts from one roadway to bottleneck others.
As with any massive change, pricing our driving habits and changing the times we go to work - or whether we leave home to go there at all - would be wrenching. Maybe it's impossible.
But it certainly makes more sense over time than spending overtime in more and more congested traffic. Multiply the headaches in US 1 rush hour traffic by two or three, which is where we're going, and Mr. Duvall's remedy sounds like paradise.
It's certainly worth the joint efforts that Commissioner Gimenez immediately proposed to get the ball rolling so that traffic will too.