Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: Unless the mayor relents, we’ll drive ourselves crazy (on I-95)

I’ve just been charged $8.50 for the heady privilege of zooming past the gridlocked peons on Interstate 95. Except I’m not zooming.

What the hell is this? Bad karma? Is this how the revolution begins? It’s the damn freeloaders making progress toward that Miami skyline while I’m stuck in the unmoving fast lane, realizing that I just paid an outrageous toll to be congealed in a motionless blob of cars, trucks, buses.

At least my desperation to get down the road is tempered by a will to live. Drivers ahead of me regard the plastic batons separating the toll lane as slalom poles. They find gaps in the tattered row of delineators and make sudden, harrowing, illegal dashes into the fast-moving traffic in the next lane.

Usually, it’s the other way around. And even more dangerous. Cheating drivers from the slow lane get past the toll sensors then veer over into the express lanes like kamikaze pilots. Last month, Kenny Malone, in his often terrifying radio series on I-95 for WLRN and the Herald, was able to quantify this particular traffic-induced pathology. “Each week, a [Florida Department of Transportation] contractor replaces anywhere from 11 to 15 percent of the plastic delineators on I-95. That means, on average, each plastic pole has to be replaced between six and eight times per year.”

Not that anyone really expected the express lane to cure what ails South Florida’s most important freeway. Unless they double-deck Interstate 95 from here to Palm Beach Gardens, it can’t be fixed. And it’s no longer just rush hour that stops traffic dead. Any time of the day, the fickle highway gods will arrange a calamity. The drive to Miami (and back) has become so capricious that even moving along at a decent pace creates a sense of dread, knowing that it can’t last. This is I-95.

In 2009, back when we were still in the throes of recession, when traffic wasn’t nearly as awful as 2015, a survey conducted by IBM called the Commuter Pain Report ranked South Florida’s commute as the third most frustrating in the nation, mostly based on that lovely experience along I-95. The survey found that 27 percent of South Floridians had suffered increased anger about their commute over the previous year. And 39 percent had said their drive to work had occasionally become so frustrating that they simply turned around and went back home. Like I said, that was 2009, back when a lot of us had no place to go.

And it’s not just folks commuting to work who’ve been flummoxed by the freeway. Back in the 1980s, South Florida residents living north of Miami often eschewed eating, drinking and playing downtown and in Miami Beach and Coconut Grove because of the horror stories about nighttime drives on I-95. Everyone talked about that gang called the Dixie Playboys that roamed the interstate decked out in Playboy paraphernalia, looking for victims broken down on the side of the freeway to rob or kill.

Here in modern times, the traffic alone is enough to keep visitors away. (The bad guys, meanwhile, have mostly given up on I-95 crime sprees, knowing that fast getaways are no longer possible.) Nowadays, the other drivers are so erratic that, hey, it has become too scary to email and text and tweet while driving on I-95, all necessary pursuits in modern commuting.

The only fix for getting folks in and out of Miami and Hollywood and Fort Lauderdale and Boca Raton and West Palm Beach are the north-south railroad tracks. Passenger service is no longer a “transportation option,” it’s our only hope for collective sanity.

And we are so close. If the city of Miami can scrounge up $11 million at the City Commission meeting Thursday, Tri-Rail would have enough to build a direct line into MiamiCentral, the 300,000-square-foot transportation hub that All Aboard Florida’s building downtown. (The state, county and two city community redevelopment agencies have pledged to make up the balance for the $69 million link.)

Tri-Rail passengers coming into MiamiCentral would be able to hook into Metrorail and Metromover, or just walk to Bayfront Park or AmericanAirlines Arena, to the museums, to the Arsht Center, to whatever giant project Genting intends to build on the bay.

Finally, downtown Miami would have a direct connection to the Tri-Rail terminal in Hialeah and a line that carries more than 4.3 million passengers a year down tracks that run west of I-95. That’s 4.3 million fewer people fighting their way up and down I-95. By 2020, Tri-Rail plans to run commuter trains from MiamiCentral along the Florida East Coast railroad tracks, further east of the interstate, connecting to as many as 28 stations north into Broward and Palm Beach County, connecting downtown Miami by rail to Aventura and the downtown business and entertainment districts in Hollywood, Fort Lauderdale, Boca Raton, Delray Beach, West Palm Beach.

But Miami can get itself that crucial first connection with Tri-Rail for just $11 million. About what DOT will be paying to replace those sacrificial plastic batons on I-95 over the next decade.

Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado somehow finds that too onerous.

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez told the Herald’s editorial board that, “All Aboard Florida will give us a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to link up Tri-Rail with downtown.” Perhaps that has something to do with Regalado’s lack of enthusiasm, given that his daughter Raquel wants Gimenez’s job. Lately, the Miami mayor has found he doesn’t like much of anything embraced by the Miami-Dade mayor.

Before vetoing the Tri-Rail money, as he has vowed to do, Mayor Regalado needs to take that white-knuckle drive north, toward the Golden Glades, at rush hour. That ought to bump him into reality (if he survives). The Tri-Rail link is more than a mere downtown public works project. Giving folks an alternative to I-95 is about preserving our mental health. What’s left of it.