Op:Ed— Transportation As We Grow

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By: former Boca councilman Robert Weinroth Special to the Boca Newspaper

Transportation is an area where I have focused a considerable amount of my time and energy over the past few years. Urban Land Institute recently held noted that 78 percent of the workforce in Southern Florida drives to work as compared to 60 percent in San Francisco, 50 percent in New York City and 13 percent in Hong Kong. Clearly, additional pavement is not going to eliminate congestion.

As the population of South Florida continues to grow (over 300,000 new residents call Florida home every year), it will be incumbent upon our elected officials to address the need to plan for the movement of our residents by air, sea and ground, lest our expressways and arterials turn into parking lots.

The Palm Beach Transportation Planning Agency is responsible for transportation planning and programming for Palm Beach County. Federal regulations and Florida State Statutes prescribe the number and balance of governmental entities that appoint elected members to represent them on the TPA Board. The 21 board members are locally elected officials from the larger municipalities, Board of County Commissioners, and Port of Palm Beach to provide a broad perspective on our regional transportation needs.

The TPA forecasts needs and proposes transportation system maintenance and improvements to be funded with Federal and State transportation dollars. Proposed projects and programs move through a planning process where they are prioritized and may be funded.

The planning for the future is no longer focused on making more room for private passenger vehicles. The need to create a multimodal solution with complete streets (engineered for safe travel by pedestrians, bicyclists and motor vehicles) in tandem with greater acceptance of public transportation alternatives is the only way we can avoid certain gridlock as our numbers continue to increase.

As part of the recent implementation of Brightline service, the potential for seeing passenger rail service available on the Florida East Coast Railway (FEC) tracks running along Dixie Highway is closer to becoming a reality. It has always struck me as odd that passenger service ran along the western (CSX) tracks and freight traveled on the eastern rails.

It doesn’t take a transportation engineer to recognize an easier commute would be facilitated by running trains through the downtowns of cities along the coast while moving freight along the western tracks.

Admittedly, residents along the FEC corridor may be less than anxious to see the number of trains running long the eastern tracks increase (especially since, near-term, there is no plan to add a station in Boca Raton for passengers to board or exit the trains traveling along this corridor) but the municipalities along the FEC tracks received funding to upgrade crossings to allow trains to pass without sounding their horn. With the implementation of the quiet zones residents living close to the tracks have enjoyed relief from late night horns from passing trains.

All of this will hopefully make it more realistic residents to use the train to commute to work, go to the airport or enjoy a baseball game in Miami. The ultimate goal is to facilitate a more convenient mode of transportation which, in turn, should convince an increasing number of commuters to leave their cars at home.

To make this a reality, municipalities will need to step up with first and last mile connectors (e.g. circulators, shuttles and rideshare services to transport commuters from their departure point to the rail and bus stops and, ultimately, to their final destination). At the same time, Palm Tran is undergoing a system wide review to make it more efficient to attract “choice” riders to public transportation,

Old habits are tough to break and it is clear people will not abandon their private passenger vehicles, en mass, overnight. However, with the millennials joining the workforce and autonomous vehicles ushering in greater use of ridesharing (subscription) services, the urge to lease or purchase multiple vehicles for family transport (and the need to set aside multiple parking spaces at each destination point for each vehicle) will be reduced.

Coupled with these efforts will be the updating of our highway infrastructure (e.g., the recently opened Spanish River interchange for I-95, improvements to the I-95 entrance and exit ramps at Glades Rd and additional north/south lanes on the interstate to reduce the number of vehicles exiting onto local roads to avoid the highway’s regular congestion).

The region’s ability to attract new employers and talented millennial employees (who want a variety of mobility options, including high-quality public transportation and opportunities to reduce the stress of commuting by telecommuting and/or reducing the distance between residence and their place of employment) will require a solution sooner rather than later.

Unless and until the riding public sees the alternatives to schlepping on the interstate (to and from their destination choice) as more cost effective and efficient, public transportation ridership will remain stagnant. This is the challenge urban planners, must meet to avoid the commuting nightmare many of us left behind when we migrated to southern Florida.