Politics: Traffic Flaw As A Draw

By Jeffrey Bradley

After a decade-plus of wheeler-dealers who skipped town after racking up a fortune playing politics and leaving the Beach holding the bag, what have we got? Besides the enormous debts, giant skyscrapers and noise problems that pit neighbor against business, we mean.

At the risk of setting the water in the shark tank churning ominously, let’s include those intractable traffic problems the speculators left us as legacy, namely, traffic jams, congested mayhem, car crashes and pedestrian deaths.

Long after the Save Miami Beach anti-development initiative that, sardonically, presaged the biggest high-rise development craze ever to hit the Beach, here’s what you get for your money—gridlock! And did you know how easily you could become one of the 60,000 people <cough, cough> who die every year <hack, hack> due to <ah-choo!> air pollution? More than 50 percent of it comes from transportation sources… your tailpipe, that is. So if you want to improve air quality, try reducing your vehicle trips or, better yet, abandon that clunker altogether and find other ways of getting around. You’ll automatically reduce air pollution when you opt for public transit.

That’s just the beginning. To combat rising gas prices and traffic congestion use trains, buses, bikes, car pools, even walking—what a concept!—which in turn helps improve traffic by reducing the number of vehicles on the road; reduce the amount of emissions that heavy traffic generates;  lower commuter costs, such as gas, car repair and maintenance; improve safety by reducing the number of accidents resulting from bumper-to-bumper traffic; reduce stress, and most importantly; reduce the number of productivity hours lost due to commuters being stuck in traffic. Just by leaving your beater home!

And with oil spewing into the Gulf like there’s no tomorrow—think you could talk about that when you’re out playing golf, Mr President?—who wouldn’t want to help? (Yes, we know, we know; but Big Oil, the tire companies and SUV dealerships have been deadset against it for years).

Ridding the road of cars is a good first step. But this new post-auto urban paradigm also includes more stop signs, bumpouts, highly-visible crosswalks, wider sidewalks. Our way of bringing it all to fruition is by knitting together municipalities up and down the coast via steel wheels on steel rails. A streetcar system isn’t hard to come by if we encourage, enable—but especially enact—elected and administration officials to rise to the level of participation by giving up their cars and riding public transit for one week out of the month, and every month. (Believe us; improvement’ll happen <a snap of the fingers> that quick.) You don’t think they’re going to get out of those expensive cars of theirs otherwise, do you? Not one of them rides, or has ridden, to our knowledge, any public transit anywhere on the Beach. How can they know then what it actually means to ride the bus? They understand car issues because, you know, they’re in gridlock daily. (We bet they haven’t a clue that they add to the mess by virtue of being in it; irony, like honesty, is often lost on politicians.) Now, we hear that you must to admit to a problem before you can change it. And of course, and especially during campaign season, our commissioners brim with concern over our “deplorable” and “out of control” transportation system and promise relief… when they mean, of course, they’ll “fix” the problem by doing the inverse of what’s really needed.

Streetcars will change everything as their paradigm calls for marginalizing the need for cars by adding streetscaping, sidewalks and bicycle lanes. But, past as prelude, streetcars are a bit of a sell. In fact, in our (not unsubstantial, we modestly admit) political experience, they engender no end of political skullduggery and the politics of No! The elegant BayLink streetcar project linking downtown Miami to South Beach over the MacArthur Causeway caused hysteria, shrillness and kneejerk negativism a few years back, and brought out the worst in too many people. As we said then (still holds true now), who needs a soap opera when you’ve got Miami Beach? Listen, down at City Hall you could hear the Looney Tunes music when the boobirds turned out.

The backstory (there’s always a backstory) is that we’re all for streetcars because we have to use public transit (cars are no longer an option; even if we had one, we’d still want the streetcars), which makes us an expert when it comes to mass transit. And the lesson learned after nearly two decades of riding stinky, unreliable buses is: pee-hew! Besides, with our roadways failing and the horrific parking, anyone not from Mars can see that alternative transport is desperately needed. And a streetcar/light-rail system would let us ride right past the polluting traffic jam instead of in it. As the ridership increases we’d get more people getting to more South Beach and downtown destinations, more parking, less congestion, coordinated traffic signals to allow surfing that signal-light ‘green wave’ (cars, too), low floors for the elders (no step-up struggling), and a sexy ride (this is South Beach). Like we said, Who rides buses that doesn’t have to? Waiting for one puts us in mind of a t-shirt with Loser on the back. C’mon; there’s hardly even a bus shelter to ward off that hot Florida sun.

Savvy Miami Beach voters overwhelmingly approved this project, then urged their commissioners to ratify it (they did), and approve hiring an independent consultant—who came down foursquare for streetcars (not buses)—and even lined up the business community (the Board of Governors of the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce voted 25 to1 for the project). So, we’ve got a “no brainer,” right? Not so fast, Gertrude!

A powerful cabal down at City Hall backed by a gaggle of vocal boobirds emerged to have things undone and turn a transportation issue into political theatre. Then-mayor Dermer—he of the Dermerite Suburbanite Autocentricity—dragged his feet, and appeared intent on bullying a vacillating commission into the nay column. (Question is, why do commissioners—then as now—hide one behind the other instead of doing the right thing?) In the event, the vote was subverted by last-minute finagling and well-timed stridency (my oh, my, how the sparks did fly!) but, as the saying goes, You can’t argue with a big deal!

And even when a vox populi public referendum sent the reaction faction packing, the mayor, filling key positions at the MPO and County level with pliant milquetoasts, managed to stall the project long enough for it to fall out of cycle… with the result that a traffic jam that once started in the late afternoon on the MacArthur now exists 24/7, and steadily grows worse—way to go, Mr ex-Mayor (no wonder your bid to regain power after you termed out via an ‘appointed’ commissionship was “derailed”)! Even today, we still see administrative types and commissioners—elected on a promise of vision, forward thinking and improving quality-of-life—get cold feet and renege but, fortunately, this idea is just too good to vanish. Besides, there are people determined to see that streetcars happen. People with money will flock to ride it, and leave their cars at home. Miami Beach, where’s your “vision thing”?

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