State's paid-carpools innovation helps block road to gridlock
By Michael Lewis
Florida is innovating to unclog highways. In a new program, it's paying Miami-Dade drivers up to $75 a month to carpool in a congested zone.
It's going to take more than one innovation to make Miami-Dade travel efficient, but this is a good first step.
The more people who carpool together in the 826-836 highway construction zone, the more the state pays each, topping out at $75 apiece for a four-person carpool.
To get paid, drivers must meet conditions to do what we ought to do anyway in the latest bid to ease growing traffic that exacerbates commutes.
Right now, the state says, an astounding 430,000 vehicles daily drive the 826-836 interchange, where improvements begun in 2009 aren't due to end until 2015.
What to do meanwhile? Limit the traffic.
Granted, the creative program isn't yet setting the world on fire. Last week just 30 people had signed up, an infinitesimal drop in traffic. With publicity (to learn more, call 1-800-234-7433), we'll expect more drivers to jump out of their own vehicles and into carpools.
The key question: How many more?
Miamians have a love/hate affair with their cars. They love the freedom of driving from here to there but hate rising gas prices and the rising time to get anywhere as more people exercise that same freedom.
It turns out that what's excellent for each of us — freedom of the open road — becomes less and less advantageous as more and more of us use it.
We'd have been far better off if the half-cent sales tax we levied in 2002 to add mass transit hadn't been siphoned off by the county to maintain what we already had. We were bamboozled.
We certainly can't count on more government cash for transit now. A recession and growing demands of federal entitlements and state and local employee benefits have put transit growth on a very slow track at best.
What transit we have added is not for countywide trips but for navigating cities. While the county frittered away its 80% of the transit tax receipts, Miami and others used part of their 20% to add local trolleys — buses that resemble old-time streetcars and are far more popular than county buses, proving that innovation doesn't have to be new, just well marketed.
The lone measure of greater heft is the linking of Metrorail to Miami International Airport, now nearly done. That will make our long-time rail line much more useful and should add riders.
Unfortunately, rail doesn't go where most auto traffic starts and ends up. It's useful if we live and work along the rail line, but we can't use it to commute if we must journey during a workday off Metrorail's path.
So we're stuck seeking patches like the pay-to-carpool plan and the just-funded bus shuttle linking the Culmer Metrorail station to the Miami Marlins stadium — but only 81 times a year, at game time. If you're too late leaving the stadium at night, the shuttle isn't running and you'll have to walk to Metrorail or take a cab.
Transit must run when it's needed, not a short schedule that might strand riders. Few use that kind of connectivity.
Without reliable links, Miamians won't leave their cars, where they feel sure of eventually arriving after battling ever-increasing traffic.
It would be great if new transportation concepts add green and energy-efficient modes. How do we reduce gas use and pollution? How do we make it convenient to bicycle rather than motor?
We can emulate other cities' solutions, but we'll have to factor in Miami's climate, sprawl and mentality.
Summer rains and heat limit how far we'll walk between transit links or locations, how far and when we'll bicycle.
The distance of work commutes and sparse outlying populations — sparse, at least, compared with places like Manhattan — might preclude rail in much of the county even if we could fund it.
And the mentality? To forsake cars, we must believe that transit will be reliable when we need it, not just when it's convenient for government.
Like most of the nation, we're moving toward more work-at-home jobs, sometimes or all the time. But we're headed there more slowly than traffic congestion is growing.
Until the drive to work becomes prohibitively costly and time-consuming, we're likely to keep commuting to faraway jobs. That's both mentality and economic reality.
That's why such innovations as paying us to do what we ought to do — share our rides and spare our highways — are vital. They offer hope that we can find multiple ways to do the right thing and prevent further damage to our lifestyle.
It's not often that we cheer a state agency, but the Florida Department of Transportation deserves kudos for its creative program. If you can, take the money and ride — together.
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