South Florida consortium issues vision, solutions for region’s future

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By Andres Viglucci
January 15, 2014

The future prosperity and livability of the seven-county Southeast Florida region could hinge on the development of commuter rail and walkable infill neighborhoods in urban centers, installation of high-tech infrastructure to spur economic growth, and an aggressive — and likely costly — adaptation to sea-level rise that would otherwise swamp low-lying communities.

Those are some of the far-reaching conclusions of a consortium of planners, public officials and civic and business leaders who on Wednesday wrapped up an unprecedented three-year effort to develop a voluntary blueprint to guide the super-region’s growth through 2060.

Dubbed Seven/50, the consortium released a lengthy but accessibly readable, interactive and hyperlinked online report — available at www.seven50report.org — that contains a detailed portrait of the region, identifies common trends, needs and issues, and sets out a broad range of strategies to address them.

Already, Seven/50 leaders say, the plan has given impulse to some significant cooperative efforts across political and public-private boundaries in the region. Among them:

  • An agreement between Tri-Rail, the state department of transportation and Florida East Coast Industries, which owns the FEC rail line from Miami to Jacksonville, to negotiate the possible creation of a commuter train service.

“They’re talking now about how can we make this happen,’’ said Jack Stephens, deputy director of the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority, which runs Tri-Rail. “This has been talked about for a long time, but you hope that this is the time.’’

  • An agreement with FEC to explore installing a significant upgrade of the region’s fiber-optic network, which one expert called “substandard,’’ along the rail right-of-way to ensure future growth for healthcare, biomedical and other high-tech industries.
  • Elaboration of sophisticated maps of potential inundation for the entire coastline for a sea-level rise of one, two and three feet, allowing local officials to develop plans to address it. The report also contains “toolkits” for protecting barrier islands like Miami Beach and the Florida Keys through raised land, expansion of beaches and mangroves, higher seawalls and installation of levees, pumps and backflow preventers to keep seawater out of sewage systems.
  • Discussion among officials from all seven counties over expanding an existing four-county compact, currently comprising Monroe, Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, to address sea-level rise.
  • Development of an online, publicly accessible “data warehouse’’ that Seven/50 consultants say is the most comprehensive ever assembled for the region. The database will help local governments and businesses make better decisions and identify economic opportunities, the report says.
  • Discussion about creating a regional business coalition to promote the region and support the diversification of the region’s economy beyond tourism, real estate development and agriculture. That could include a bid to host an international sporting event such as soccer’s World Cup or even the Summer Olympics as a region.

“We can’t be competing with each other anymore,’’ said Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who pronounced himself “fully committed to collaboration’’ during a panel discussion with his counterparts from Broward and Palm Beach counties at the final Seven/50 summit Wednesday at the Fort Lauderdale convention center. The three counties last year announced an effort to work together on lobbying in Tallahassee and Washington on regional issues.

“We can be much more effective as a regional bloc” in winning political and financial support for economic development and transportation improvements, Gimenez said.

Seven/50 planners, led by lead consultant Victor Dover, a nationally known Coral Gables-based planner, started with a question: How can the region of six million people absorb a projected population growth of three million additional residents by 2060 without destroying the natural environment, losing quality of life, or becoming mired in traffic congestion?

The solution preferred by more than 70 percent of the more than 1,000 people who participated in formulating the report: fostering development of walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods connected by public transit, including commuter rail, with denser districts clustered around new train stations.

By putting more people closer to work, home and recreation, those options would significantly reduce dependency on cars, and increase walking and cycling as a means of getting around. That also would raise the tax base for municipalities and produce the kind of urban environment sought by young, well-educated people and entrepreneurs who are forging the country’s high-tech economic future, Seven/50 planners say.

“This is a pretty ambitious plan, but 50 years is a long time,’’ Dover said.

The planning process, funded by a $3 million U.S. Housing and Urban Development grant and led by the South Florida and Treasure Coast regional planning councils, did hit some roadblocks in attempting to bring together officials from Monroe, Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, Martin, Indian River and St. Lucie counties.

County commissioners in Indian River and St. Lucie, besieged by Tea Party activists who vociferously claimed it was a conspirary to centralize control over local communities by the federal goverment with the aim of herding people by force into dense urban neighborhoods, voted to “opt out.’’ But municipalities, school boards and other public bodies in those counties continued to participate.

Seven/50 leaders emphasized there is nothing mandatory in the report, whose recommendations would take force only if adopted by local officials.

“It’s been almost overwhelming — seven counties and 50 years,’’ noted Indian River commissioner Peter O’Bryan, the lone vote in favor of continued participation on his board. “But there’s a lot of people willing to get on the bus.”

 

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