Slow trailing ribbons of ruby lights are the norm on U.S. 1. The flaring brake lights remind commuters that the journey will be long and slow. The gleaming chains of cars creep forward slowly with few gaps between vehicles as the squawk of car horns pierces the air. Bicyclists zoom past cars caught in the morning traffic jam.
U.S. 1 runs from Key West to the Canadian border. In Miami-Dade County, it is a main artery, giving commuters access to dozens of destinations in one straight shot.
But that same road is the source of fury and frustration for drivers who use it during peak hours in snarled traffic. By a national standard that grades roads from A to F based on congestion, stretches of U.S. 1 in South Dade get grades of D, E or F; during the morning rush hour, traffic gets an F, according to the Miami-Dade Transportation Planning Organization.
The situation is especially bad for commuters in South Dade — anyone who lives between Florida City and Southwest 88th Street in Pinecrest — because most commute to jobs outside South Dade and they have few alternatives to the congested route. Some leave U.S. 1 and thread their way through residential neighborhoods, creating new problems.
Planners and municipal leaders are trying to change that. As the county rolls out its Strategic Miami Area Rapid Transit (SMART) plan, which calls for extending rail lines farther from the county’s central core along six traffic corridors, communities along U.S. 1 want that extension built quickly. To make their case, they’re trying to bulk up their downtowns with more businesses to create jobs that will keep residents in town and urban housing that will create dense population centers where rail lines would provide efficient alternatives to private cars.
But the towns’ revitalization efforts often come with strenuous opposition from the people who already live there, who say they want to retain the character of the rural or suburban single-family neighborhoods that existed when they bought their homes.
“We need less development, not more of it,” said Carol Vega of Palmetto Bay, where the Village Council recently rejected two apartment or condo developments near the town’s center after residents opposed them. “I’m tired of developers thinking they’re going to lose money if they don’t build these monstrosities. I bought into a residential neighborhood and I’d like to see it stay that way.”
But Joe Corradino, owner of The Corradino Group — a development and infrastructure planning company that partnered with the Miami-Dade Transportation Planning Organization to conduct a year-long mobility study of the region’s most congested areas — says there’s more to the equation.
“This traffic problem is going to take way more than just better public transportation. This is a land-use issue, a jobs issue, an infrastructure issue,” Corradino said.
Subrata Basu, a veteran Miami-Dade urban planner, says the issue is a double-edged sword.
“It’s about constantly looking to improve the transportation options but at the same time, finding ways to stop the constant sprawling in Miami-Dade County,” Basu said. “It’s like the chicken or the egg. Which comes first — does density come first and then you build the transit, or does the transit system get built so that it can attract density?”
“If you don’t densify the development along the corridor where better transit will at some point be available,” he added, “then these developments will go further out where it’s cheaper to build and easier to get land. What that does is create more sprawl and people cutting traffic through residential neighborhoods,” he said. “People who live in these communities oftentimes don’t realize that.”
U.S. 1 runs parallel to a busway — a separate road for buses — that runs from 344th Street in Florida City to Dadeland station. Its buses are infamous for long waits and commute times. One option is to use the current busway for a ground-level or elevated railway.
Corradino: “What you have in South Dade are mostly single-family homes spread out on lots of land. That automatically forces people to use their cars, which causes major back-ups on the roads. In order to get better rapid transit, you need funding. And for funding, you need to show that you can sustain ridership. And for that, cities along the corridor need higher density, transit-friendly developments. So in reality, it might get worse before it gets any better.”
But that’s not news to city officials in the area, who are redesigning their city centers to accommodate more development. Homestead, Palmetto Bay, Cutler Bay, and Florida City have all rezoned their downtowns to encourage more urban residential and commercial structures. Pinecrest has already been built out.
“We have put our hopes in expensive transit when the answer is partially in economic development,” said Corradino, who is also Pinecrest’s mayor. “If we can put more housing and businesses in South Dade, you might even reduce the traffic by half.”
According to the study, about 75 percent of workers who live in South Dade leave the area to go to work. Two-thirds of them commute to downtown Miami, Doral and Coral Gables. Only 25 percent of employed people who live in South Dade work there.
“There’s an extreme directional demand,” said Wilson Fernandez, a manager at the county’s Transportation Planning Organization. “In the mornings, U.S. 1 is packed going northbound, and if you look at the southbound lanes it’s empty. The goal is to reverse and balance that out.”
In need of a revival
Homestead has been at the forefront of South Dade cities changing their blueprints. In the last few years, the city center has undergone a massive makeover, pouring more than $50 million into projects in the last two years alone, including a grand new city hall, an imposing police station, a historic theater that has been restored and a “Cybrary” or cyber library that is under construction.
Another $70 million in projects are expected to roll out in the next few months including a downtown transit center with a parking garage, a luxury movie theater, bowling alley, restaurants, and retail stores that will serve as the city’s new trolley hub and connect a park-and-ride transit terminal to the busway.
“We believe these projects will stimulate new residential projects in the downtown and make Homestead more attractive for national companies to relocate their headquarters here, creating higher paying jobs so that residents don’t have to leave the city to find work,” said George Gretsas, Homestead’s city manager.
Rafael Casals, city manager of Cutler Bay, is on the same page. In 2012, the town developed new mixed-use zoning districts and architectural standards to encourage economic development.
“If we can get more businesses into our city, chances are that the people who live here won’t have to commute north and sit in traffic,” said Casals. “Why go to Doral , Brickell, or downtown just to sit in front of a computer when you can do the same thing here?”
Florida City Mayor Otis Wallace says the southernmost city expects two new hotels, a jai-alai fronton and poker room, and approximately 500 multi-family units. Areas along the busway have been rezoned to include multi-family and commercial development.
But those efforts to revitalize don’t sit well with every taxpayer. James Tranthem, a retired school administrator who has lived in Homestead for more than two decades, says he believes bringing in more transit-oriented development still would not guarantee a solution to “this traffic debacle.”
“The people living there will still have cars. Our area is nowhere near developed enough to sustain people who work and live here. We just don’t have the good paying jobs,” Tranthem said. “I don’t see it happening, unless … gas goes to five or six dollars a gallon. That’s the only way I see people out here being driven to use mass transit.”
He added: “Put it this way: I wouldn’t take a bus from Homestead to anywhere, and I’ve got a car that gets 12 miles to the gallon.”
Change and resistance
But although the South Dade cities have paved the way for incoming development, most have yet to secure residential site plans or draw significant interest from investors.
“There’s been interest; developers know that the growth is creeping south,” said Cutler Bay’s Casals. “They always ask what the status is of the transit corridor because they obviously want to secure that they will have transit oriented development.”
Steve Zarzecki, president of Concerned Citizens of Cutler Bay, said the future of South Dade depends on transit-oriented development on U.S. 1.
“It’s the only viable future that we have if we are going to continue building here. Residential development in particular on U.S. 1 would have a tremendous advantage of allowing people to board the future metro and go to their jobs without using their cars. In order to support our growing population, the right place to do it is along the corridor.”
Palmetto Bay approved a new zoning code in 2015 in hopes of encouraging investment in the distressed commercial corridor along Franjo Road and U.S. 1.
The code foresees a new downtown with a mix of green space, homes and businesses. It also calls for wider sidewalks, bike racks, bike lanes, and a hub that would tie in to the South Dade Busway.
But building a dense city center hasn’t come easily. Opposition from residents shot down several proposed multi-family developments or led to a significant reduction in density.
Earlier this month, as residents lined up in opposition, the Palmetto Bay Village Council turned down plans for a project that would have put 300 new apartments on U.S. 1. Instead, the council asked developers to downsize the density and bring back a smaller project. Another project of more about 400 apartments in the same area is also in the pipeline. After intense public dispute, the village also reversed its decision to allow 485 condos on Old Cutler Road.
“Rental apartments will bring an influx of residents who are not committed to our community. Our fight against traffic will become a losing battle made worse by our own actions by continuing to approve this unbridled growth,” said Gary Pastorella, a vocal Palmetto Bay resident who leads Concerned Citizens of Old Cutler, in a newsletter to his neighbors.
Palmetto Bay Mayor Eugene Flinn says public reaction affects planning along the corridor, mainly because of cut-through traffic.
“People are justifiably afraid that U.S. 1 continues to clog up, causing people to drive through the neighborhoods to escape the traffic,” he said.
South Dade covers 50 percent of the county, but holds only 25 percent of the population, and 12 percent of the jobs, according to the Corradino study. The land use largely consists of low-density residential development with some medium-density residential. Generally, the area is spread out, even sprawling, particularly in its northwest and southeast portions.
Experts predict that South Dade will have the fastest growing population in the region.
“There’s been a tremendous amount of growth, but the roads haven’t grown, transportation hasn’t evolved,” Corradino said. “Roadway congestion is growing and levels of service are deteriorating.”