South Florida gridlock is getting worse. How are local leaders grappling with it?

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Now that COVID-19 has receded as paralyzing threat to transportation, Brightline is back, Tri-Rail is at full strength, yet so is gridlock.

Regional planners are thus turning their attention back to a critical issue that has plagued the tri-county area for years: how to deal with the transportation needs of legions of new arrivals in one of the fastest growing regions in the country. According to highway guide AA Roads, the Broward County section of I-95 is the most heavily traveled section in the entire state, rivaling California’s Riverside Freeway south of Los Angeles.

At a recent annual conference of the Broward Metropolitan Planning Organization, which helps set big picture policies for the county, an assemblage of local mayors and transportation leaders met to hone possible solutions. Here’s what they had to say.

We are one big metro; let’s act like one

Executive director Gregory Stuart and others made it clear that South Florida’s big three counties and its vast array of cities need to collaborate more on how to get travelers off the area’s congested roads and onto alternative modes of transit such as trains, buses, bikes and even electric scooters.

“There needs to be a streamlining on how this occurs,” Gregory Stuart, the agency’s executive director, said in an interview. “We have so many things we all have to be working on. We are a major metro. We are actually a really big city and we need to start acting that way. We can’t keep thinking that we’re all of these small places. That’s why we’re behind the eight ball as opposed to being in front of the eight ball.”

One of the fundamental challenges is the area’s burgeoning population. According to the 2020 Census, the combined population of the three big South Florida counties of Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade stood at 6,138,333. That reflects a 10.3% increase since the 2010 count.

Although the region’s growth rate trailed other parts of the state such as Central Florida’s Orange County, forecasters are looking for another low double-digit increase in South Florida over the next ten years.

Gregory Stuart, executive director of the Broward Metropolitan Planning Organization, exits an electric bus in 2019 after taking a test drive in Fort Lauderdale. Electric buses are part of Broward’s master transit plan that also includes a long-shot possibility of a monorail system connecting Broward to Miami-Dade.

Gregory Stuart, executive director of the Broward Metropolitan Planning Organization, exits an electric bus in 2019 after taking a test drive in Fort Lauderdale. Electric buses are part of Broward’s master transit plan that also includes a long-shot possibility of a monorail system connecting Broward to Miami-Dade. (Susan Stocker / South Florida Sun Sentinel)

While Brightline initially billed itself as a pure regional play that would rapidly move leisure travelers between South and Central Florida, the railroad is essentially leveraging its position to help cities it serves spearhead more local commuter services, including entering the “last mile” business, creating fleets of chauffeured proprietary electric vehicles to whisk passengers home.

Of the gridlock and growth, Patrick Goddard, the Brightline CEO said, “It’s pretty inevitable that it’s going to get worse over time. We’re looking at doubling the population here in the next decade and a half or so. And there isn’t a lot of capacity to expand the highways.”

Last week, Brightline announced a West Palm Beach partnership with the Related Companies, Micromobility Management and the West Palm beach Downtown Development Authority for a “bikeshare” program called BrightBike. The program will be a fully dock-based system with 170 pedal-powered bikes placed around downtown. The initiative is part of a broader Brightline+ program to help move its own train customers between stations, homes and offices.

On another front, the company is in negotiations with Miami-Dade and Broward counties to build rail connections for local commuters.

“As we think of each city as a hub, we need the spokes,” Goddard said. “Those spokes can come in all shapes and sizes. The private sector is going to provide some of that connectivity. The public sector is going to provide that connectivity.” The timeline on these projects remains vague.

Friction in the public sector

Talks of other transport alternatives have gone less smoothly. In Fort Lauderdale, Mayor Dean Trantalis is advocating a tunnel system from the downtown area to the beach, as well as a tunnel that would run beneath the New River for Brightline’s passenger trains and Florida East Coast Railway freight trains. This puts him at odds with the Florida Department of Transportation, which wants an elevated bridge to support a proposed Coastal Commuter Link targeted for 2027.

The mayor and the FDOT also disagree on the cost and the impact of both the tunnel and the bridge.

In an interview, Trantalis noted the state’s traditional approach. “It seems the state continues to remain focused on highways and bridges and pathways that they’re used to applying toward fulfilling transportation needs.”

He critiqued the county as well. “Broward County seems very focused on big buses and more buses and the lesson we need to learn is that is not a solution. If look at buses, most of the time they are empty,” he said.

In Pembroke Pines, Mayor Frank Ortis, who also chairs the Broward MPO, is pro-bus, but anti-electric scooters, which have had a rough ride in various South Florida cities over the last several years.

“I decided against it because of the negativity I heard,” he said. “Eventually in our city center we would like to have an electric bus around the periphery so people can shop and park their cars and they don’t have to worry about it.”

In Miami-Dade, a long running scooter pilot project was abruptly cut off earlier this month by the Miami City Commission, which ordered hundreds of the two-wheeled vehicles operated by seven companies off the streets. The city intends to issue a request for proposals that would lead to a revised program next year.

One of the candidate is Wheels, which three weeks ago started a battery-powered scooter operation in Miami Lakes, a city of 31,000 in northern Miami-Dade, where the company is permitted to operate 150 scooters.

“It’s allowing residents to go from shops and restaurants and employment centers out to their homes,” said company spokesman Will Sowers. He said the company has operated more than 2,000 rides thus far, and that those rides were the equivalent of removing 2,000 cars from the city’s streets.

Riders pay $1 to unlock a scooter and then 39 cents per minute of use.

Sowers said the loss of access to the City of Miami’s streets was a result of the city commission’s concerns over “clutter and safety.”

There were similar concerns aired by critics in Fort Lauderdale, where scooters disappeared after the arrival of COVID-19 and have yet to reappear. The scooters sparked controversy after coming to town in 2018. Critics complained about reckless riders spooking pedestrians and leaving sidewalks and private lawns littered with scooters haphazardly dumped after the rides ended.

Tri-Rail looks for an upgrade

The largest and longest-running cooperative venture for the region is Tri-Rail, the commuter rail line that runs down the CSX rail line from the West Palm Beach area to Miami International Airport. The publicly subsidized line was designed to move commuters from I-95 in the early 1990s during a widening project. But it has persevered ever since.

Although COVID-19 drastically slashed ridership and forced a reduction in service, full schedules have been restored and commuters are returning.

“Now that we’re approaching the high $3.40s on gas, you don’t know where gas prices will be in the future,” said Steven Abrams, executive director at South Florida Regional Transportation Authority / Tri-Rail.You have to have alternatives for people to get around.”

COVID forced the line to change how it moves passengers to its stations from their homes and offices. Before the outbreak, it used small buses.

“We now have an Uber taxi pilot program that seems to working pretty well for us,” Abrams said. “It covers the fixed route buses we had. We partnered with Uber and Yellow Cab and Metro Taxi in Palm Beach and are seeing how it goes. So far so good.”

A Tri-Rail bus operation still transports passengers to and from Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.

Tri-Rail's station at Miami International Airport. The line expects its trains will have access to the downtown MiamiCentral rail station built Brightline at some point next year. MIKE STOCKER/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Tri-Rail’s station at Miami International Airport. The line expects its trains will have access to the downtown MiamiCentral rail station built Brightline at some point next year. MIKE STOCKER/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER (Mike Stocker / Sun Sentinel)

The recently signed federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that is meant to funnel billions into fixing the nation’s aging highways, bridges, water pipes and sewer lines, also includes money for improving public transportation options and expanding the nation’s electric vehicle charging network.

Florida is in line to receive $19 billion, with large chunks going to improve 408 bridges and more than 3,564 miles of highway that are in poor condition, according to the Biden Administration.

Abrams said in an interview that Tri-Rail will look to access money through existing transportation grant programs that will be “more robustly funded” by the infrastructure act. Fixing an aging rail bed will be one priority.

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“We will put in for — as we have in the past — a concrete tie program,” Abrams said. “Right now we have tens of miles of wooden ties which don’t hold up in the South Florida heat and humidity and are very costly to replace. If you replace them with concrete ties you have more [use] for years to come.”

Tri-Rail also has it eyes on new locomotives and passenger cars.

He also expects Broward and Miami-Dade will look toward federal money for the proposed coastal rail link now in the planning stages.

“That is a huge cost item for them,” Abrams said. “We are looking forward to operating that system. That’s very meaningful for us.”

Fort Lauderdale still has to find a way to pay for its Elon Musk’s proposed twin tunnels to the beach, which would use Teslas as public transport. The city plans to pursue federal money for the project, which the city says would cost less than $100 million.

Goddard of Brightline said it is uncertain if there is any money available in the federal bill for the railroad as it is a private company. But there could be the possibility of low interest loans for commuter projects in which Brightline partners with local governments.

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