Francis Suarez: We’ll get started on two new rail lines in 2017

We’re going to be spending this month making the city’s movers and shakers nail down some resolutions and predictions for their work in 2017. This week we’re talking local governance.

Francis Suarez is the District 4 commissioner for the City of Miami, the president of the Miami-Dade County League of Cities, and vice chairman of the Metropolitan Planning Organization, which is tasked with planning the future of transit in Miami. We lightly edited this interview for clarity and length.

We’ll break ground on at least two lines of the SMART plan in 2017.

There’s at least two lines of the SMART plan that are very easy to accomplish for a very modest amount of money. When you say a modest amount of money, you have to keep it in its proper context. The FEC Coastal Link, which is a currently existing rail line, can easily be activated this year. And there’s been talk of extending the Metrorail south, bringing it to grade from its elevated position, and bringing it down the busway. I think those are two lines that I would like to see happen in 2017, to get construction started at least.

One of the things we’ll be looking for is whether MDX will decide that they should get into mass transit? Because they have a huge arterial right of way that they can participate with since they’ve expanded 836 and left two massive lanes running through the middle where you can run some of express bus, bus rapid transit, or actually run rail right down it. I think that’s another potential line that can be done relatively quickly. (Editor’s note: This would be an east-west line.)

We should have as a goal to have the north line up by 2020 because that’s when the Super Bowl is going to come to the stadium. That’s when we should have Metrorail running north all the way to the Broward line. Kendall needs to be connected at some point and Miami Beach as well.

What we all need to do collectively on [the Miami Beach line] is decide what technology we’re going to use and how we’re going to pay for it. 

You can just look at how quickly the All Aboard Florida station (Editor’s note: for the future passenger train line connecting Miami and Orlando) has gone up. All you have to do is go from an elevated platform to grade. Once you’re at grade, all you’re doing is laying track. If you already have the platform at Dadeland, all you have to do is build the platform to get to grade.

We are convening a sunshine meeting in the beginning of the year with cities in the northern portion of the FEC line. The idea is to bring these mayors into a room and tell them, “This is where its going to go, it could go through your city. Could you guarantee building a station in your city?”

We will take steps to stop cut-through traffic in neighborhoods.

Cut through traffic is a huge issue in the City of Miami’s neighborhoods. I’ve gotten [Miami-Dade County] to concede on traffic control devices. Waze is a big issue.

The problem really is a philosophical problem. Our neighborhoods are a system of capillaries in a body. You have the veins and arteries and capillaries. The capillaries have always been neighborhoods… but the capillaries are now getting clogged. People are trying to save a couple minutes, driving too fast. And it’s no longer safe in our neighborhoods.

We can’t have our neighborhoods serve as capillaries for people trying to get across town. It destroys the quality of life in our cities.

We will grapple with providing affordable housing.

The other issue, this will definitely be an issue in the mayoral race (for the City of Miami in November 2017). We have the largest income disparity of a major city in the US and second largest rental cost as percentage of income. Affordable housing is something I’ve spent my entire career creating… there’s some more creative legislation coming down the pipeline next year.

You can’t just fix the expense side, you have to fix the income side. Miami is well-positioned to be a major technological hub of the U.S. Whoever the next mayor is, I hope they will center their emphasis as mayor on attracting a lot of these tech companies. That means collaboration with universities… trying to sell the city to these major tech companies so they understand we’re not just a hub for sales but also development of technology and apps.

That’s the income side of things. It’s wonderful to keep working on producing affordable/workforce  housing, but you also want to keep people out of poverty… give them the skills to thrive in the modern economy.

There is this tension in our neighborhood between density to reduce cost of housing and traffic. The city of Miami is a very intense single family residential city. The more you densify the corridors, the more you increase traffic. The less you densify, the more expensive housing is.

I think there will be some legislation this year that regulates a little more our increased density. We’re densifying enormously, and I think all our density has to be in part tied to our transit infrastructure. There has to be that nexus. 

For example, we have about 180,000 residential units more or less in the city. We have the capacity for about 1.5 million. As we get denser and denser… there has to be a nexus between that increase and transit. Maybe we require developers to pay a transportation impact fee. We’re already looking into that.