The seven counties of Southeast Florida, already more populated than 35 states, will cram 3 million more people into the region in the next 50 years, planners told a summit meeting in downtown Miami on Thursday.
But transportation networks, public infrastructure and land-use rules are not keeping pace, meaning the region could face gridlock, a widespread loss of farmlands, and a deteriorating economy if current policies remain unchanged, planners told hundreds of attendees at the meeting at Miami Dade College’s Wolfson campus.
Casting a big shadow over the region is the certain prospect of rising seas, which new research shows will inundate some low-lying coastline areas, including parts of densely populated barrier islands, displacing thousands of people.
But the planners and researchers who drew up that worrisome scenario as part of the Seven50 plan, an unprecedented effort that aims to chart the region’s development through 2060, also said Southeast Florida has potent economic assets and the basic infrastructure — including ports, a road network and rail lines — to adapt and even prosper if its leaders tackle the issues in a coordinated fashion.
“The population growth is coming, no matter what,’’ said the project’s lead consultant, Coral Gables-based planner Victor Dover.
That growth is not the off-the-charts population explosion that some experts were predicting before the economic crash, Dover said.
Still, detailed new projections developed for Seven50 show the region’s population will balloon by 50 percent over the next 50 years to around 9 million people, said consultant Santanu Roy.
Given current land-use policies, he said, that means the region will by then have run out of buildable land, and 250 square miles of productive farmland will be lost to development.
Absent a substantial increase in local and regional mass transit, other experts said, Southeast Florida residents could find it nearly impossible to move around the region by car.
James Wolfe, Florida Department of Transportation district secretary for Broward, Palm Beach and the three Treasure Coast counties, said the agency’s ability to expand its highways is already “nonexistent’’ because of shrinking budgets and lack of space.
“We’ve reached the limit,’’ he said to applause from the audience of planners, activists, government officials and business leaders, before adding: “The answer is obviously transit.’’
Paying for new public transportation will be a challenge as well, said Miami-Dade County transit chief Ysela Llort, noting that operating and maintaining buses and trains requires substantial subsidies.
But renown planner Andres Duany told the meeting that the region has no choice but to make the investment if it wants to compete with other U.S. and foreign regions now organizing to steal away Southeast Florida’s banking, freight, trade and tourism, including Panama City and South Texas. Global economic competition is now driven by such emerging “mega-regions,’’ he said.
Seven50, a two-year planning effort led by the South Florida Regional Planning Council and the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council, is funded by a $4.25 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.