What Congress Learned from Miami Gardens

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This Wednesday, I had the opportunity to represent my city, Miami Gardens, before the U.S. House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Highways & Transit of the Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure. As the Chairman of our Miami-Dade County Transportation Planning Organization, I was asked by my Congresswoman Frederica Wilson to share our experience in fighting congestion in the Miami-Dade region with her fellow members of Congress on the Committee. I wanted to share with you what I told Congress and hopefully what they learned from Miami Gardens yesterday.

To start, I should also give you some context. Congress is facing several decisions in the next year that will make or break our transportation system. Most importantly, the national transportation fund (the Highway Trust Fund) is running dry and when it does, funding for roads, bridges, and transit that flows to states and localities will stop. Running up to that, there are several automatic cuts that will hit without Congressional stopping them:

Congress needs a game plan for the future of funding transportation and so that is what the hearing, Pricing and Technology Strategies to Address Congestion on and Financing of America’s Roads, was focused on.

We cannot build our way out of congestion.

In Miami Dade County, traffic is an impediment not just to our growth economically but to our development as a community, and many places share our challenges. Our Expressway System has almost reached its limit, and we have no room to build our way out of congestion. This is why we are providing travel choices and alternatives that include both Express Lanes and expanding transit through the Miami-Dade SMART Plan, a rapid transit plan for the region’s future.

Express lanes paired with express transit keep everyone moving.

Express Lanes in Miami-Dade have now been in our community for about a decade to reduce overall traffic congestion and increase traffic flow. What Miami-Dade’s T&I Urban Mobility rankings show us is that we’ve been able to grow and keep congestion down by providing choices for travelers on our congested expressway system using Express Lanes AND Bus Express Rapid Transit service (or BERT for short). BERT is a key ingredient of our tolling pilots to improve the commute times for all lanes. BERT service has been highly successful with ridership rising 48% in just two years, and we plan to expand this network as part of the Miami-Dade Strategic Miami Area Rapid Transit (SMART) Plan. Flow has improved in all lanes, including the non-tolled lanes, and that’s the result our residents want.

Be SMART – Congress can help cities and regions get desperately needed projects done faster.

While we’re doing better on congestion, it’s still a problem. The best long-term remedy to relieving congestion in South Florida is through expansion of our rapid transit network so our TPO has designated the Strategic Miami Area Rapid Transit Plan or SMART Plan as our top priority. The SMART plan involves several improvements to the BERT network and the addition of six rapid transit corridors.

Right now, the South Corridor of the SMART Plan is in development and funding stage. Locally, we secured a commitment of $100 million; Florida DOT is committing $100 million.  We are also requesting a Small Starts grant of $100 million from the FTA. Federal partnership can help our entire region move forward and continue to loosen the grip of congestion more quickly. Locally we have committed all available local funding, including TIFs, over the next 40 years to implement these projects, but even with help from our state partners, it’s not enough. Federal support of innovative projects like SMART is essential, and a federal process that offers certainty also helps moves projects like this forward.

Congress can help with a realistic and reliable process.

We need a federal funding process that acknowledges that communities need access to opportunity within a reasonable time frame so all the partners and stake holders can plan for and do their part. For example, the North Corridor project is so important to our community and we want to get it moving. It was initially contemplated when I was in elementary school! Students in class right now at Scott Lake, Crestview, Norland, Norwood, Parkway, Carol City or Parkview elementary schools deserve better. We have to do better and faster. We need federal funds and not just the possibility of federal funds. We need a predefined funding structure to regions like Miami that provides for more than widening highways as a solution for congestion.

Not every solution is built for everywhere.

Congress’ support of the Value Pricing Pilot Program allowed us move the pilot 95 Express project forward and convert our High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes to High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes, but everything is not right for every area. Congress should provide communities as many tools as possible to improve their local transportation needs and let them determine which will work best for them.

Transportation is about investing in people and their dreams.

Roads are not just roads. They are pathways to something greater. Rail is not just something to carry trains. Rail, specifically the Metrorail in Miami Dade County, carried a young boy from Miami Gardens to the University of Miami every day. It helped him get his law degree. Ultimately, it’s responsible for him being the mayor of his hometown Miami Gardens. Past choices to invest in meaningful and efficient public transportation were essential to my future. I asked Congress to pay their brilliance forward and find ways to expand rail, create dynamic transportation, reduce congestion, and promote conservation of time and of the planet.

Together, we go forward.

Our goal must not only be better answers but also to ask tomorrow’s questions. Congress in partnership with cities and our states can help build up programs and funding that will work for the future. As a board member of the National League of Cities, I know that cities are stronger together and that we must all step up our conversations with Congress to ensure that the choices they make about transportation actually work for our cities, towns and villages. I hope that you take the opportunity to talk with your Members of Congress soon about the future of federal transportation funding and ask the questions that will move us forward together.

Watch the full testimony here.

oliver-gilbertAbout the author: Oliver Gilbert III, is Mayor of the City of Miami Gardens, Florida, and a National League of Cities Board Member