Miami-Dade aims for another fleet of CNG buses

Written by Jesse Scheckner on December 11, 2018

Miami-Dade aims for another fleet of CNG buses

A second series of compressed natural gas (CNG) buses could arrive in Miami-Dade by September to replace its aging Metrobus fleet, adding to 300 buses already ordered.

Where they will come from, however, is undetermined.

County commissioners Dec. 4 amended an item directing Mayor Carlos Giménez to issue a purchase order for buses through a Central Florida Regional Transportation Authority contract to allow the county to shop for better price and quality options from contracts nationwide.

“If the vendors know we can go to [multiple] providers, we can negotiate a better price,” he said. “It’s certainly my intent to have a better value.”

Miami-Dade currently gets roughly five new CNG buses per week from New Flyer of America, Transportation Director Alice Bravo said.

If the county were to contract with multiple manufacturers, Mr. Giménez said, it could replace its outdated diesel-fueled fleet much faster.

“Instead of 20 buses a month, we can get 40 buses a month and get those old buses off the street,” he said.

And no matter where the buses come from, he said, county technicians would be able to service them because their inner workings are essentially the same.

“They’re all Cummins engines,” he said. “We end up with the same transmission.”

While the county isn’t restricted to buying through the Central Florida Transportation Authority contract, it must move quickly if it chooses to do so, as the organization’s five-year contract with CNG bus builder Gillig expired Dec. 11.

“We’re exploring the prices through that contract with the vendor, but we’re also looking at other contracts we could also access,” Ms. Bravo said. “These contracts we’re looking at have multiple vendors on them, while this Central Florida contract has only one.”

Miami-Dade can order up to 713 Gillig buses through the contract, which far exceeds its needs.

But to fund any bus purchase, the county would need to access the money from the “half-penny” tax voters approved in 2002.

To access that money, the county either needs approval from the Citizens’ Independent Transportation Trust (CITT), which oversees the fund, or an override through a two-thirds vote by county commissioners.

Javier Betancourt, executive director of the CITT, said that due to time constraints, if the county opts to buy buses through the Central Florida contract, it would have to do so and seek retroactive approval from his group.

“This is happening in reverse order at this point, so they will be sending us an item for our consideration on the tail end instead of the front end,” he wrote Dec. 6.

Buying buses through an external contract deviates from how the county bought its last round, said Ms. Bravo, who said county typically issues an invitation to bid, a process that takes about four months.

“This resolution will resolve all these issues in the most efficient and expeditious manner,” said Audrey Edmonson, the item’s sponsor. “We cannot sit here and wait another two years for buses. We need buses now.”

Jeffery Mitchell, president of the Transportation Workers Union of America, Local 291, said the residents were “crying for better equipment, more buses,” and not ones built by New Flyer, which he said are problematic.

Miami-Dade as of last week had accepted 134 of 300 buses from New Flyer, Ms. Bravo said, of which a small number had tire imbalances that caused a “resonance frequency” between the bus’ body and tires made it vibrate when traveling at 65 miles per hour.

After a battery of tests to identify and correct the problem, preventative measures were established to ensure it didn’t occur once the buses were delivered, she said.

New Flyer also agreed to extend warranties on several bus components and conduct additional inspections during the warranty period.

“Since that process was put in place there’s been no more vibration issues,” Ms. Bravo said.

But Mr. Mitchell said the vibration problem is one of several that Miami-Dade transit workers found with New Flyer buses.

“We should pick the standard, not the prototype,” he said. “Right now, anywhere from 20 to 30 buses – brand new – aren’t useable. These are not the best buses. The further you go along, we’ll find out we didn’t get the best bang for our buck.”

County bus technician Antonio Gonzalez said nine of the new buses were indefinitely out-of-service due to “catastrophic engine issues.”

“New Flyer has another seven or eight buses they can’t find what the issues are,” he said. “As a veteran technician, I can tell you that these buses are lemons.”

Jennifer McNeill, vice president of sales and business development for New Flyer, said few of the buses her company delivered are out-of-service due to mechanical or systemic problems.

Nine were out-of-service because of accidents, she said. Eight were with Cummins for engine work. The remaining eight were being serviced by New Flyer or being dispatched.

“Of the [200 buses delivered], the number that are sitting with Miami for [pre-delivery inspection] are being worked through at a rate that’s amenable to both New Flyer and Miami-Dade Transit,” she said. “Our ask today is simply to be allowed the opportunity to compete for further buses.”

On Monday this week, Ms. Bravo said that while the New Flyer buses her department accepted into service were “performing well,” the county was exploring its options.

Florida’s transportation agency now listens to neighbors it once dismissed

For years, the Florida Department of Transportation was known for its distant relationship with the public. Now the agency is trying to be a better neighbor.

 

Updated December 3

 

TAMPA — The Florida Department of Transportation has an image problem, and new hires within the agency are trying to fix it.

For years, the department was known for its antagonistic relationship with the public, which peaked with the Tampa Bay Express highway expansion. That project was quashed after a public outcry, and multiple leaders were replaced. Now, the agency is trying to move forward and rebuild trust in the community.

A new district secretary who is viewed as more open helps. So do events like a listening tour the state organized in West Tampa on Friday. Department heads and engineers boarded a bus with community members in hopes of developing relationships and learning more about the neighborhood.

The tenor of the current department is a far cry from the 2015 and 2016 Tampa Bay Express days, which were marked by a “take it or leave it” attitude.

“This was an agency that came to us with a prepackaged solution and no real room for discussion,” said Rick Fernandez, president of the Tampa Heights Civic Association. “We were little more than an afterthought in a grander scheme.”

That’s changed in the past two years, Fernandez said. The state announced a “reset” of Tampa Bay Express and in 2017 rebranded its efforts in the area as “Tampa Bay Next.” The new name came with more than half-dozen staff changes, including the arrival of district secretary David Gwynn, who took over in July 2017.

“They do seem genuinely interested in trying to listen,” said Tampa Bay Express opponent Kimberly Overman, who was recently elected to the Hillsborough County Commission. “Which is light-years away from the FDOT we used to know.”

• • •

The bus on Friday was filled mostly with department employees and consultants. A handful of community members, several of whom grew up in West Tampa, sat near the front with Gwynn. They pointed out problems they’d like fixed and history they’d like preserved.

As the bus rolled down N Willow Avenue near the interstate, they spied the retention pond that often fills with trash.

“That’s our retention pond, there?” Gwynn asked. He knew the department was having an issue with its maintenance crews, and made a note to check on the status of the property.

It was one of the few sentences the secretary said in the nearly 90-minute tour. This was a listening tour, and that’s what he was going to do.

Next, the group came across one of the overpasses where the interstate cut through the neighborhood.

“We’ll show you why we need better lighting, Secretary Gwynn,” lifelong resident and engineer Joe Robinson said. “The lights are all up there on the road. There’s nothing down here in the so-called walking community.”

Many of the projects people highlighted didn’t fall under state jurisdiction, but it was still helpful to hear about them, Gwynn said. The department often partners with the city and county, and having an understanding of the community’s overall vision and desires helps the state on a macro level, he said.

Robinson and others praised the neighborhood’s history and cultural fabric. They pointed out the cigar factories and the brick roads, along with century-old buildings and some of the best Jamaican food in the area. Robinson wanted officials to see the good in the neighborhood, not just the road plans and diagrams.

“A lot of the times we’re looking at aerials, but then you get down here and see and hear the history of it,” Gwynn said. “As we get closer with some of these concepts, it might be good for us to come out again and talk a little more.”

Robinson thanked Gwynn and other staff for taking the time in the community. It was good to put faces to the names, he said.

“You know I’m one of FDOT’s biggest critics,” Robinson told the group earlier. “But I love the fact that we’re finally getting some communication and dialogue.”

• • •

State officials weren’t always so willing to engage.

The agency’s $6 billion highway expansion was met with almost instant pushback when unveiled in May 2015. People felt the project came out of nowhere, with no public input. State officials cited origins from the 1990s. Two years of contention followed.

It wasn’t uncommon during that time to attend a transportation meeting and see the seat designated for the district secretary or overseer of Tampa Bay Next empty. Calls to the office’s public information number would go straight to voicemail. At one public meeting, a staff member sat in the back and snickered at comments from crowd.

In 2016, members of the county’s transportation planning group requested the state do more to engage the public. But those meetings, too, had a tone of dismissal. When people made suggestions that didn’t fit the state’s already crafted plan, they were told those ideas would go in “the parking lot.”

“It was basically putting your idea in time-out,” Fernandez said. “It was the closet they could come to saying, ‘We won’t hear anything that doesn’t involve the plan we proposed.’ You weren’t allowed to speak about anything else.”

A forced reset from Tallahassee and new hires worked to change that mentality.

Richard Moss stepped in as director of transportation development in April, a role that directly oversees Tampa Bay Next. Moss was aware he was moving into an “antagonistic relationship between FDOT and the public” and knew work needed to be done.

That’s why the district continues to plan events like Friday’s listening tour, Moss said. The department did a similar tour in East Tampa, along with walking with community members through the neighborhoods of MacFarlane Park, Armory Gardens and West Shore Palms. Officials went door-to-door in Tampa Heights, VM Ybor and Historic Ybor seeking input.

“It’s important for us to be there with locals,” Moss said. “We need to listen as they show us what’s important to them.”

• • •

Not everyone on the bus tour was impressed.

Hillsborough County NAACP president Yvette Lewis watched as they turned through the neighborhood streets. While others on the bus praised progress and economic development, she saw a history of demolished properties and exclusion.

“Give something back of what you keep taking around us,” Lewis said. “You’re constantly taking, taking, taking.”

Her comments extend to everybody — the state, the city, the wealthy homeowners who move in and outprice others who can no longer afford the rising rent.

Elaine Illes, a historic preservation consultant, shared a seat with Lewis and listened to her concerns. Illes noted some of them were at odds with what Robinson and others on the bus called for. She encouraged Lewis to continue to speak up, saying every new administration change is an opportunity to start fresh.

“Hopefully they listen to you, then, because they’re not listening to us,” Lewis said.

The state agency has made strides since the Tampa Bay Express backlash, but some are worried it could turn at any point.

Fernandez said each morning he wakes up, he’s still afraid a Google Alert will notify him of some change in the department that hurts the community.

“As of late, it seems as though we’ve kind of gone back to, ‘Here are the white boards of what we’re going to do. Take your choice,'” Overman said. “It’s not as much of a conversation.”

Some in the community will always be skeptical of the state’s intentions and willingness to work with the public, Overman said. Still, she believes officials have made a greater effort at transparency. She said she sees less aggression in how the state interacts with the public.”There was a level of arrogance in the past that I think has either gone away or at least subsided,” she said. “There’s now at least a desire for greater collaboration with the communities. …

“Let’s hope that lasts.”

Contact Caitlin Johnston at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.

What the Florida midterms tell us about paying for our economic priorities

Traffic backs up on I-275 in Malfunction Junction in Tampa. Times files.

 

There’s a lot to unpack from the midterms.

Will the recounts change the outcome of any of the statewide races?

Can polling find a better model, one that predicts the actual winners?

Will felons who have served their sentences really get their voting rights back?

I’ll leave those to the political experts. Instead, I’m getting my head around what the results tell us about our economic priorities and how we want to pay for them.

Here are three takeaways:

1. For now, we’re okay with taxing ourselves.

Pasco County residents overwhelmingly voted in favor of three separate property taxes increases to improve parks, libraries and fire rescue stations. They also narrowly passed a fourth increase to pay for a jail expansion. Total cost: $241 million.

In Hillsborough, voters passed two additions to the sales tax — an extra half cent for schools and a full cent for transportation. That raises the sales tax to 8.5 percent, the highest of any county in the state.

The transportation victory comes after several failed attempts to raise funds for rail and transit in the Tampa Bay area, including a similar effort in 2010 soundly rejected by Hillsborough voters and the disastrous Greenlight Pinellas campaign in 2014.

It’s a good time to vote on a tax increase. The economy is chugging along. Unemployment is low. Consumers remain fairly confident about the future.

Kyle Simon, 34, who lives in Palma Ceia, said he would have voted in favor of the tax increase anyway, but it certainly helps that people have more money in their pockets.

“It takes the sting out of voting for it,” he said.

The sales tax passed, in part, because residents experience the transportation problems for themselves, not as some far off problem, said Tampa Heights resident Rick Fernandez, who voted for the increase. They get snarled in traffic or can’t walk safely to where they want to go.

“We need it and we weren’t getting it done,” said Fernandez, 63, who was a registered Republican until 2016, when he switched to be a Democrat. “So eventually people power takes over where the elected officials are failing you.”

2. But we aren’t so fond of Tallahassee politicians taxing us.

Voters easily passed Amendment 5, which will require the Legislature to muster a two-thirds super-majority if it wants to impose, approve or raise state taxes or fees. Blocking proposed tax hikes will be much easier now. The amendment does not apply to local fees or taxes, such as funding for schools.

Voting for local tax increases, and at the same time making it harder for the state to levy taxes, makes sense. Traditionally, voters have been more likely to support tax increases if they have a clear grasp of what the money will pay for and that it stays close to home. We don’t like far-away politicians spending our taxes on things we never see or don’t understand.

3. Enough of us were feeling bullish to forgo a tax break.

Amendment 1 would have increased the homestead exemption by an additional $25,000, saving many homeowners about $200 to $350 a year depending on the value of their home and where they live. Of the 12 proposed constitutional amendments, it is the only one that failed.

Now, most voters — 58 percent — favored the amendment. It was popular, just not popular enough to get over the required 60 percent threshold.

The amendment language was a bit confusing, which likely didn’t help. Many voters, however, appeared to heed the cries of local officials, who said they might have to cut services or raise rates to make up for lost revenue.

Fernandez said he wasn’t tempted by the tax break.

“It felt like we would be starving local governments, and I didn’t want to be a part of that,” he said. “… I love Tampa and I am willing to pay the little extra that is being asked of me to allow the area to thrive and grow.”

The results show he isn’t alone.

Contact Graham Brink at gbrink@tampabay.com. Follow @GrahamBrink.

Hillsborough transportation tax: What you need to know

 

WHAT DOES THE BALLOT INITIATIVE DO?

  • Here’s the question on the ballot for County Referendum No. 2: “Should transportation improvements be funded throughout Hillsborough County, including Tampa, Plant City, Temple Terrace, Brandon, Town ‘n’ Country, and Sun City, including projects that: Improve roads and bridges, Expand public transit options, Fix potholes, Enhance bus services, Relieve rush hour bottlenecks, Improve intersections, and Make walking and biking safer, By amending the County Charter to enact a one-cent sales surtax levied for 30 years and deposited in an audited trust fund with independent oversight? A new 1% sales surtax is in addition to the current 7% sales tax and is estimated to raise $276 million annually and $552 million the first two calendar years. Revenues will be shared by Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority (HART); Metropolitan Planning Organization; and, using a population-based formula, by Hillsborough County Board of County Commissioners, City of Tampa, Plant City, and City of Temple Terrace. Expenditures will be governed by the Charter Amendment.”
  • Most of the money — 54 percent — would be earmarked for roads, sidewalks and trails. About 45 percent would go to bus and transit. Here are highlights of how the tax proceeds would be used: resurface Tampa’s roads every 25 years instead of every 75 years; build a mass-transit system linking the university area, downtown Tampa and the Westshore-Tampa International Airport area; round out a planned network of 400 miles of bike and pedestrian trails; add 10 new routes, 150 new buses and increase the frequency of at least four bus routes to every 15 minutes; plug roughly 500 miles of sidewalk gaps on roads in unincorporated Hillsborough; and make intersection improvements throughout the county, including the addition of intelligent traffic signals that adjust to real-time traffic flow. For a household with an income that’s average for the county, around $55,000, the proposal would mean an extra $120 per year in taxes, according to a sales tax calculator developed by the Internal Revenue Service.

WHAT’S AT STAKE?

Transportation officials say no one has come up with a way to pay for hundreds of pressing transportation needs amounting to some $9 billion. To address this, a citizens group backed by business leaders including Jeff Vinik gathered the signatures necessary to put a one-cent-per-dollar sales tax on the Nov. 6 ballot. Other backers include Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and major local employers. No opposition to the measure surfaced until three weeks before the election, when a tea party-affiliated group that successfully fought transportation ballot measures before in the Tampa Bay area organized a political action committee. Among its arguments, the group says the increase would help make Hillsborough’s the state’s highest sales tax and is unnecessary because county commissioners re-prioritized $800 million of existing revenue for transportation over 10 years that, combined with gas taxes, will fund needed maintenance and safety issues. The local NAACP also opposes the hike, saying it’s a burden on poor people. All for Transportation, the group advocating the tax increase, said the $800 million doesn’t come close to answering current transportation needs or  those that will be created by a Hillsborough population increase projected at 700,000 in the next 30 years. If the measure passes, it would amend the county charter to increase the sales tax by 1 percent and would create a 13-member citizen oversight committee to make sure local governments spend the funds as intended.

The Train That Only Libertarians Can Love

Will Florida’s sleek, for-profit rail project become an advertisement for the limitations of bipartisan compromise?

by Maddy Crowell

Barack Obama had a vision—expressed in a literal, color-coded map he carried with him in 2009—for how high-speed rail would transform America. There would be 150,000 jobs, environmental benefits, less highway and airport congestion, and, most importantly, “a smart transportation system equal to the needs of the twenty-first century.” As part of that vision, in his 2010 State of the Union address he announced that the state of Florida would receive a federal grant, later set at $2.4 billion, to build a high-speed rail project that had been shovel ready since the 1990s: an eighty-five-mile line connecting Tampa and Orlando, offering a super-fast alternative to traffic jams along Interstate 4. The young president showed up a day later in a sweaty gymnasium at the University of Tampa to promote the plan. “There’s no reason why other countries can build high-speed rail and we can’t,” he said to applause. “And that’s what’s about to happen right here in Tampa.”

Except it wasn’t. That November, Republican Rick Scott, a Tea Party darling, was elected Florida’s new governor. It took him one month in office to extinguish Obama’s vision. “Put simply,” Scott wrote in a February 2011 letter to Ray LaHood, the transportation secretary, “the proposed high-speed rail line is far too uncertain and offers far too little long-term benefit for me to consider moving forward.”

Ideology was at the core of his decision. For years, mainstream Republicans have rebuked high-speed rail as socialist folly. (They are hardly kinder to Amtrak, a quasi-public, nominally for-profit entity.) Scott was the latest in a long line of Republican governors—including John Kasich in Ohio and Scott Walker in Wisconsin—to reject Obama’s money on the grounds that high-speed rail was too much of a burden on taxpayers.

But a few years ago, a more palatable solution was presented to Florida’s Republicans. The proposed train, called Brightline, wouldn’t quite be “high speed,” which by international standards generally means running on dedicated tracks at speeds over 150 miles per hour, often approaching 200. Brightline trains would run on upgraded tracks laid in the nineteenth century, passing through the centers of many small towns and traversing hundreds of grade crossings, where track and roadway (or track and track) meet. As a result, they would top out at 125 miles per hour. But what really animated Republicans was Brightline’s solution to funding: it would be a for-profit operation funded through private investment. This train wasn’t socialism; it was American free enterprise at work. 

Yet Brightline, which started running between Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach this past January and extended services to Miami in May, has been controversial. While Scott has praised the project for being “100 percent private,” the project is under siege from a broad coalition of Floridians—including many Republicans—who complain that a high-speed passenger train will disrupt their tranquil communities, and who object to the generous subsidies handed out to private investors in the form of what are known as private activity bonds, or PABs—tax-exempt bonds created by Congress and authorized by the U.S. Department of Transportation. Florida’s state Democrats, for the most part, have been quietly supportive of Brightline. 

So many other countries have unveiled state-of-the-art high-speed rail systems in recent years (Uzbekistan, anyone?) that it’s become almost a cliché to wonder why America hasn’t been able to build tracks of its own. Yet the question of what to do about the impasse—along with America’s degenerating infrastructure more broadly—remains perilously unanswered. Brightline, with its supposed combination of public benefit and private enterprise, offers itself as a panacea to the partisan gridlock. But can a for-profit transportation project adequately provide what has traditionally been a publicly subsidized service? Or will the sleek new trains become an advertisement for the limitations of bipartisan compromise?

President Obama wasn’t the first Democrat to make sweeping promises about how high-speed rail would transform Florida. In 1982, the wildly popular Democratic Governor Bob Graham returned from a vacation in Japan convinced that bullet trains were the future. He created the Florida High Speed Rail Commission, a nonpartisan group tasked with determining whether the technology was feasible for Florida. They concluded that it was, and by 1996, it looked as though the project would actually happen. The Florida Department of Transportation agreed to commit $70 million per year for thirty years to build a line between Orlando and Tampa. Companies like Amtrak and the makers of France’s TGV started meeting with the committee to bid for the commission. One consortium even proposed a magnetic levitation train that would travel at 300 miles an hour.

“They spent an hour convincing me how they were the best engineers,” said C. C. Dockery, a wealthy, civic-minded businessman who served on the committee, recalling one such meeting. “Finally, I had a chance to cut in and say, ‘If you think this is an engineering job, you’re definitely wrong. This is a political job.’”

By that time, debates over high-speed rail were percolating nationwide. Conservatives objected that it would be an expensive boondoggle leading to bigger government. If countries like Japan and France were surpassing the U.S. in train technology, it was just a sign of their socialist inefficiency. Besides, they argued, we have cars.

Democrats, by contrast, were drawn to the broad social benefits of high-speed rail: the millions of construction jobs they believed it could create, the broader economic development it could stimulate, and, perhaps idealistically, the connections it might encourage between disparate communities. In 1992, then candidate Bill Clinton proposed creating “a high-speed rail network between our nation’s major cities.” Once in office, he wound up prioritizing deficit reduction over his campaign promises for infrastructure investment, but he still managed to put in place a plan to create federal-state partnerships devoted to alternative means of transportation. Florida was first in line to receive the benefits. 

But, in 1999, newly elected Governor Jeb Bush killed a $6.3 billion project to build a bullet train linking Miami, Orlando, and Tampa. Billions of public dollars were at stake, he said; who knew whether tourists and auto-loving Floridians would even use it. (Florida would have put up $2 billion, with the rest coming from federal loans and private investment.)

A group of private citizens fought back, led by Dockery. In 2000, following a campaign to which Dockery contributed $3 million of his own money, Florida voted in favor of making high-speed rail a state constitutional mandate. It seemed like Dockery had finally won: construction for a train from Tampa to Orlando was to begin in 2003. But Bush—who later boasted that his nickname was “Veto” Corleone—swooped in to lead an effort to repeal the amendment in 2004. “This little choo-choo could cost us a lot of money,” Bush argued on his way to winning the repeal vote. It seemed clear by that point that Florida’s Republicans would not budge: high-speed rail was all but out of commission. 

And then Brightline came along. 

When I flew into Fort Lauderdale in July, I had to rent a car. Florida’s southeast corridor is designed for the automobile, with disjointed trenches of soggy swampland and gated communities joined by an epic sprawl of asphalt and traffic. With the exception of Miami, the cities that run along the southeast coast feel more like a disparate string of small neighborhoods, linked by roads with names like Green River Parkway and South Military Trail that ultimately feed into larger highways like Interstate 95.

The Brightline station, built on the outskirts of Fort Lauderdale’s sleepy downtown, stood in stark contrast to its surroundings—a fiercely lit, modern white-winged building spitting out a pair of railway tracks that divide the city. To the east was a mix of fast-rising real estate developments and gentrifying older neighborhoods; to the west, low-income housing. Surrounding the station, on all sides, were streets and highways. Every day, sixteen trains run in each direction between West Palm Beach and Miami, offering a high-end, hospitable alternative to I-95, which runs parallel to the train. 

“Nifty,” a man disembarking Brightline said as I stepped past him onto a fluorescently painted train that had slid into the station exactly on time. “Very nifty.”

It was a Wednesday night in the middle of summer, and nearly every other row of seats was empty. The interior glowed in an opalescent sheen, smelling of a fresh grapefruit musk (a scent that Brightline is turning into candles to sell). The plush leather seats reclined to face screens displaying color-coded maps and declaring, “We’re proud to be American-made.” Inscribed on every headrest, in elegant cursive, was the word “Brightline.”

We all but glided up the coast, passing backyard barbecues, empty lots, and low-income communities where, as one man later put it to me by way of explaining the poverty, “People bike.” It was a sharp contrast to the scene inside the train, which seemed built to serve mostly businesspeople and tourists. Smiling stewardesses in matching violet uniforms offered riders in the “Select” class unlimited free beverages. One stewardess, whose hospitality recalled the long-lost days of Pan Am, explained to a middle-aged blond woman who was sipping a vodka with lime that she could even blow-dry her hair on Brightline on her way to work. “It pays to relax!” she said with a laugh, continuing down the aisle.

“I’ll take a Stella Artois,” said a young man playing Sim-City on his computer. He paused, looking up. “Wait—is it cold?”

The stewardess nodded.

“I mean, is it Florida cold?”

It was indeed. This, Brightline seemed to be saying, was no Amtrak ride. 

To its boosters, Brightline is a testament to what free enterprise can accomplish—running on privately owned tracks that simultaneously run fleets of money-making freight trains. But the reality is that hauling people has been a money loser since the 1960s, and Brightline wouldn’t exist without some form of government backing.  

The project was the brainchild of Wes Edens, the cofounder of Fortress, one of Wall Street’s most powerful private equity firms, which bought Florida East Coast Industries for $3.5 billion in 2007. Eight years later, the company came up with a plan to make passenger trains profitable again. The trick was to get approval from the Florida government and the U.S. Department of Transportation to allow Brightline to float more than $1.7 billion in private activity bonds. 

PABs, originally designed to attract investment to private projects with public benefits (like, say, a new hospital), are appealing to investors because the interest they pay is exempt from federal income taxes. For Brightline, they provided a way to finance private infrastructure using public tax subsidies. Although Brightline’s holding company is responsible for paying back the debt created by these bonds, the tax exemption is a pure public expenditure.

In 2000, Florida voted in favor of making high-speed rail a state constitutional mandate. But Governor Jeb Bush swooped in to lead an effort to repeal the amendment in 2004. “This little choo-choo could cost us a lot of money,” he argued.

To survive on PAB funding, Brightline needs to find a way to churn a profit. As Brightline’s president Patrick Goddard explained to me, “Our goal is to provide mobility. And yes, we want to make money while doing so.” In turn, it is pricey. Current rates, which are expected to rise significantly, range from $15 to $30 to ride from Miami to Fort Lauderdale to West Palm Beach. Like airline flights or ride shares, prices fluctuate based on demand. (I paid $20 to ride for thirty minutes between Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach in the off-season.)

If all goes right, Brightline will create so much economic development in the communities it serves that it will more than make up for the cost of its tax subsidies. The taxpayers will in effect get a free passenger rail service. But if that sounds too good to be true, maybe it is. 

Aprivate, for-profit train seemed to be just the banner Florida’s corporate Republicans needed to pass high-speed rail, even if it was only made possible through the back-end subsidy of tax exemptions. “We changed the conversation,” Dennis Grady, the president of the Chamber of Commerce of the Palm Beaches, told me when I met him at his office, a flat building on the edge of the water just ten minutes from Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate. Grady, who has been running the Chamber for thirty-three years and likes to refer to the business community as “my people,” has been a leading advocate of Brightline, which is a Chamber member. “We removed the criticism of public dollars, and put in private dollars.”

The business community’s enthusiasm has been key to Brightline’s success. More surprising, though, has been the support of libertarians—erstwhile high-speed rail skeptics who became cheerleaders for Brightline. One of these supporters is Bob Poole, founder of the libertarian Reason Foundation and a member of Scott’s transition team in 2010. The Reason Foundation was instrumental in persuading the governor to reject Obama’s proposed project in 2011. When Scott announced that he was killing the project, he cited a Reason Foundation report as the basis for his decision. 

Private activity bonds are appealing to investors because the interest they pay is exempt from federal income taxes. For Brightline, they provided a way to finance private infrastructure using public tax subsidies.

I met Poole at his house, a late-1960s tract house fifteen minutes outside of Fort Lauderdale. The walls were lined with an eclectic book collection, with public policy tomes resting next to Ayn Rand fiction and Hippie Food. Poole told me that Obama’s high-speed rail plan was “just loony tunes.” High-speed rail made sense in Europe, or Japan, where cities were closer together and extensive rail systems already existed, he explained. But in America, preexisting freight tracks have been severely downsized, and trying to revive them doesn’t make sense. Brightline, however, was a different story. “The fact that this is privately funded, and no taxpayer money is at risk, makes this a no-brainer to support.”

Yet even if Brightline wins the praise of self-described market conservatives and Chamber of Commerce types, it’s having a harder time in some other Republican quarters. Florida Senator Marco Rubio, for example, has become an outspoken critic. A few months after Brightline began operations, Rubio wrote a letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao questioning the legitimacy of its funding. He argued that the project doesn’t meet the standards outlined by the Department of Transportation, which provide that “high-speed rail” must run at a base speed of 150 miles per hour to qualify for funding. Other state Republicans chimed in with letters to Chao.

An unlikely team of allies—nine Democratic and Republican representatives—fired back, assuring Chao that they shared her “vision of identifying innovative approaches to meet our nation’s transportation challenges.” The group argued that Brightline was the “perfect example” of how private activity bonds should be spent, and that it would decongest Florida’s growing population by providing a new transportation alternative. They accused their opponents of “resisting change.”

Meanwhile, opposition is strong at the local level, including among the many Republican retirees who live along Brightline’s right-of-way. A month after the train began operating, a group calling itself Citizens Against Rail Expansion (CARE) filed a lawsuit complaining of crony capitalism. CARE’s suit challenges the legality of Brightline’s PABs while also raising environmental and safety concerns (in six months, for instance, Brightline trains ran over and killed nine people, though more than half may have been cases of suicide). The lawsuit is currently awaiting a court date. 

Governor Scott—who is running for Senate this fall—has not responded directly to any of the complaints, beyond repeatedly stressing that Brightline poses no risk to taxpayers. He may be forced to speak more on the topic soon. In August, the Miami Herald reported that Scott and his wife had invested at least $3 million in Fortress, the investment group that owns Brightline, and have earned more than $150,000 in profits from their investment. When I contacted Scott’s office, his spokesperson, Lauren Schenone, said that Scott’s investment was part of a fund “managed by an independent financial professional who decides what assets are bought, sold or changed,” and that Scott, a multimillionaire, has no control over it. “The Governor does not discuss the First Lady’s investments with her or with her financial advisors,” Schenone added.

In August, Brightline got the green light from the Florida Development Finance Corporation to act as the conduit issuer for almost $1.8 billion in PABs, enabling the company to go forward with what they are calling “Phase II”: trains from Miami to the Orlando airport. Construction has begun, with the upgraded track cutting through one of Florida’s most densely populated arteries—a predominantly Republican corridor where many residents are adamantly opposed to seeing fast trains running through their backyard. Ironically, it’s a “backyard” that likely wouldn’t exist if the railway hadn’t been built through it 124 years ago.

“We don’t want this train coming through our town—bottom line,” Brent Hanlon, one of four founding members of CARE, explained to me in his office in an exclusive country club in Hobe Sound. Hanlon, who has sandy blond hair, sun-spotted skin, and speaks with a boyish eagerness, had never been politically active until 2014, when he heard about Brightline. He immediately reached out to the surrounding forty towns to raise awareness about the train, and formed CARE. “We’re a very small town with a small-town feel, and we just think that having a train blow through our community would take away the charm of our downtown. When you see Confusion Corner, you’ll understand why.”

Hobe Sound, in Martin County, is part of a cluster of small communities that make up the “Treasure Coast,” a sprawling beach with silvery blue water where sea turtles nest and “downtown” is a single street with a theater, a café, a barber shop, and a restaurant. Inland, wild swampland wraps tightly around spruced-up golf courses, a parody of the eternal combat between chaos and order. 

I followed Hanlon by car to Confusion Corner, which turned out to be the local nickname for a congested roundabout in the middle of the small town of Stuart. Bisecting one edge of the clogged circle are the railway tracks Brightline proposes to use. As we stood there, a freight train passed by, and Hanlon pointed to every “confused” car that had to sit a little longer in traffic. I didn’t completely understand the hype. Trains had been running up and down the tracks for as long as Martin County had existed. While Brightline would add to that traffic, it didn’t seem like something Floridians—who appear to be culturally habituated to congestion—hadn’t seen before. 

“Is there anything Brightline could do to change your mind?” I asked Hanlon as we watched the freight chug past. 

“Yeah,” he said quickly. “They could, uh, not run.”

CARE has been repeatedly accused of being a classic case of NIMBYism. At a congressional hearing last April, Brightline’s president, Patrick Goddard, accused the group of being “a minority of narrow-minded residents . . . who are willing to support passenger rail everywhere, it seems, except in their own backyard.” When I spoke with Goddard on the phone more recently, he said he wished he’d handled the situation differently. “We’re married now,” he said, referring to the fact that Brightline is beginning to build through the Treasure Coast en route to Orlando. “We’re going to have to find a way to get along.” 

Naturally, Brightline opponents see the NIMBY label as a way of trivializing their objections. “We have really legitimate reasons for being concerned about safety, and to say that we’re just anti-progress is very shortsighted,” said Erin Grall, the state representative for Vero Beach, and a Republican. “The reality of these coastal communities is that they have been built up by a railway, but not one running at 110 miles per hour through our communities.” She argued that Brightline hadn’t put the proper safety features in place: the train would pass through 100 grade crossings, and the burden of maintaining them, according to Grall, would fall on local taxpayers. “This state’s been talking about high-speed rail for a really long time,” she said. “The conversation does change a little if it’s privately funded, but safety is still an issue and there isn’t really an entity on the state level that has stepped up to say, ‘Okay, we’re going to make sure our citizens will be safe.’”

CARE casts itself as the voice of the community—a bipartisan advocate for what it claims are the roughly ten million people who live in areas that could be affected by rail expansion. At the same time, CARE has powerful supporting players of its own. In the group’s short life-span, it has raised $2 million from private “crowdsourcing” (the community is mostly wealthy retirees). It is backed by the former CEO of American Airlines and employs a global PR firm and a legal team consisting of two county attorneys and two outside counsels.

Brightline is continuing to expand. In September, the company announced that it would be starting a high-speed passenger service connecting Southern California with Las Vegas. But it’s not clear how successful the Florida operation has been. When I spoke with Goddard, he said Brightline’s first-quarter numbers were “higher than expected.” The company generated $663,000 in ticket revenue, and carried close to 75,000 passengers, from January to March. But according to Brightline’s unaudited quarterly report, the company lost roughly $28 million in the same period. A Brightline spokeswoman, however, said those numbers only reflected ridership for Brightline’s introductory service, and added that ridership and revenue increased 35 percent from January to March. The project’s fate may depend on whether it can sell the more than $1.1 billion in remaining PABs by the end of January (an extension granted by the Department of Transportation in May). If Brightline fails, private investors will lose their money, with no responsibility on the government itself. But what may be lost, in that case, is the opportunity to have applied the PABs to a project that could have succeeded.

The larger question raised by Brightline is whether its mixture of private ownership and public subsidies, which the Trump administration proposed in its infrastructure bill in February, makes either political or economic sense. “Almost invariably, the issue is that when private capital is at risk, the arrangement is structured so that private returns are prioritized,” said Elliott Sclar, a professor of urban planning at Columbia University. “Either way, the public sector always bears the lion’s share of risk for the entire project.” 

“We don’t want this train coming through our town—bottom line,” said Brent Hanlon, a founding member of Citizens Against Rail Expansion. “Is there anything Brightline could do to change your mind?” I asked. “Yeah,” he said quickly. “They could, uh, not run.”

In a way, the combination of private financing for public railways is nothing new. From the beginning, rail infrastructure in the U.S. was privately owned, but largely financed through considerable grants of public land. Railroads, in turn, used a small part of the land for their rights-of-way, selling the rest at an enormous profit. The very track on which Brightline runs exists because back in the 1880s Florida gave Henry Flagler, one of John D. Rockefeller’s close friends, a grant of more than two million acres of land in return for his building the Florida East Coast Railway. 

This model has led to problems and contradictions over the years. Even before the coming of autos and planes, most passenger trains historically lost money, especially ones serving small towns on lightly traveled branch lines. The government had to force railroads to run those unprofitable trains, often pointing to the generous land grants and other subsidies the railroads received. But in the mid-twentieth century, a variety of forces made this harder to sustain. (Depending who you ask, it was Dwight Eisenhower’s interstate system, a cultural shift toward driving, the railroad unions, or all of the above.) The decline of passenger rail was slow, until suddenly, it happened all at once: October, 30, 1970, the day the government passed the Rail Passenger Service Act “to revitalize rail transportation service in the expectation that the rendering of such service along certain corridors can be made a profitable commercial undertaking.” Today, we know that act as “Amtrak.”

That system hasn’t worked out so well either. Outside of the corridor between Boston and Washington, D.C., and a few other routes, Amtrak trains run on tracks owned by private railroads. These railroads charge Amtrak rent for using their rails and often for the cost of maintaining their infrastructure, then routinely delay Amtrak trains for hours by making them cede priority to freight trains. Republicans in Congress keep insisting that Amtrak must nonetheless make a profit on each train, even if it means cutting service standards to the bone. Recently, under pressure to show a profit, Amtrak has cut dining car service on two of its long-distance trains and is rapidly cutting back the number of manned stations across the country. 

Maybe a model like Brightline’s is the best America can do. But it doesn’t solve the basic contradiction between expecting trains, or any other form of transportation, to turn a profit on every run while also expecting the system to serve the public’s broad needs for service.

Those who have supported and advocated for Brightline—from Rick Scott to the Chamber of Commerce to the company itself—embrace an ethos of efficiency, but it is an efficiency that, as so often happens when the state looks for private solutions to public problems, tends to achieve its effect by separating the few from the many. As the Chamber’s Dennis Grady told me, “My people want to get from A to B, and they aren’t anxious to stop a lot. That’s why Brightline is successful.”

Maybe, if it is necessary to get conservative buy-in for improved passenger rail service, a model like Brightline’s is the best America can do. But it doesn’t solve the basic contradiction between expecting trains, or any other form of transportation, to turn a profit on every run while also expecting the system to serve the public’s broad needs for service. “The paradox of public transport, quite simply, is that the better it does its job, the less ‘efficient’ it may be,” wrote the historian Tony Judt, a social democrat and a lifelong devotee of railways. “[W]hat of rail links to and from places where people take the train only occasionally? No single person is going to set aside sufficient funds to pay the economic cost of supporting such a service for the infrequent occasions when she uses it. Only the collectivity—the state, the government, the local authorities—can do this.” 

When I left Florida to return home to New York, I decided to take Amtrak. The ride from Tampa took twenty-five hours, traveling along tracks, congested with freight trains, that are owned by the CSX corporation—or, more exactly, by the hedge funds and other financial institutions that own CSX. The station in Tampa was true to Amtrak’s reputation—a decrepit and tired-looking gray. Water dripped on our heads as we waited for a man with a whistle to allow us to board. But every seat was full. Next to me, an elderly woman was traveling to visit her son, somewhere in Virginia. She couldn’t drive and depended on Amtrak to see her family. She asked what had brought me to Florida, and I explained that I was writing about Brightline, the new high-speed rail. “What is high-speed rail?” she asked, yawning.

For all its built-in handicaps and acute underfunding, Amtrak remains an essential public service—and a social good. As an eerie midnight blue set in, and everyone fell asleep, the train rocked forward, stopping deep into the night in the tiny hamlets of the south—the Villages, Waldo, Ocala, Wildwood—to carry passengers who look very different from those riding Brightline to the cities of the Mid-Atlantic. I woke up when the sky turned white and we were passing through someone’s backyard in rural South Carolina, a thick fog settling in over tangles of overgrown mossy fields. Only twelve hours had passed; thirteen, give or take a few, to go.  

Maddy Crowell

Maddy Crowell is a freelance journalist based in New York.

Feds Order Company to Stop Shuttling Florida Kids to School in Autonomous Bus

The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ordered a transit operator in Florida to immediately stop shuttling kids to school in what the agency described as a “driverless” shuttle, and said the company’s use of the vehicle as a school bus is “unlawful.”

The letter, issued on Friday to Transdev North America, directed the transit operator to stop transporting kids in the Southwest Florida community of Babcock Ranch on the company’s EZ10 Generation II driverless shuttle. In a press release, NHTSA said the company had received permission to temporarily import the driverless shuttle for testing and demos.

Specifically, NHTSA said that Transdev requested permission to use the shuttle for a demo project, “not as a school bus.”

“Transdev failed to disclose or receive approval for this use. School buses are subject to rigorous Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards that take into account their unique purpose of transporting children, a vulnerable population,” the agency said in a statement.

What’s strange is that Transdev certainly made its intention obvious to the public. In late August, the company and Babcock Ranch plainly stated that it would begin operating an autonomous school shuttle in the fall, “the first in the world.”

The 12-person shuttle picked up kids from a designated area and a safety attendant would always be on board, the statement says.

“Eventually, school shuttle service will be available to students and parents on demand, door to door, using an integrated app on their smartphones,” Transdev and the city said, making it clear as day that it would begin operating an autonomous school bus.

There’s a video accompanying the announcement:

And a news story:

 

Local newspaper coverage:

 

Autonomous vehicle definitions get confusing fast, and NHTSA describes this as a “driverless” shuttle. There’s a safety operator on board while students are riding to make sure everything’s running smoothly, but it’s probably a fair choice of words here. Transdev said in the release that the “route and operation will be fully autonomous.” The vehicle’s max speed is 8 mph.

Something about this strikes me as odd. If Transdev indeed failed to notify the agency about its plan to use this as a school shuttle, then why did NHTSA take nearly two months to act?

Nonetheless, NHTSA suggests Transdev copped to … something.

“Transdev has informed NHTSA that it will stop unapproved operations,” the agency said.

I asked Transdev for comment, and I’ll update the post if the company offers a response.

No ‘fake news’: All For Transportation clears up myths

With less than a month remaining before the Nov. 6 election, the All For Transportationcampaign is trying to combat what it says is misinformation about the 1 percent sales tax referendum on the Hillsborough County ballot.

“With an existing backlog of $9 billion in transportation projects and an estimated 700,000 more people expected to move into Hillsborough County within the next 30 years, we can’t continue to ignore our transportation and transit problems,” said Tyler Hudson, All For Transportation chair.

“But a ‘Yes’ vote in November will be a decisive step toward reducing congestion, making our roads safer, and improving our overall quality of life.”

The group documented several misconceptions it has heard from voters.

Some think the All For Transportation plan is the same plan that was rejected in 2010. That referendum was similar in that it would have raised sales tax 1 percent, but its provisions were vastly different.

Moving Hillsborough Forward, the 2010 transit initiative, was mostly focused on transit enhancements. Of the money raised, 75 percent would have gone toward those projects and the plan lacked restrictions on how the money was spent.

This year’s transportation plan allocated 45 percent to the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority with most of the rest going to cities and Hillsborough County to pay for roads and safety projects, among other non-transit needs.

That’s another misconception campaigners are hearing from residents worried the tax won’t ease congestion or pay for new lanes or roads.

The referendum would use about 20 percent of the $280 million raised each year to pay for all of the road widening and new road projects in the Hillsborough County Metropolitan Planning Organization’s long-range plan that are currently backlogged and un-funded.

All For Transportation campaigners are also reminding voters that the county does not spend enough on transportation. There’s a $9 billion backlog in transportation projects and that number gets bigger every year as the county continues to fall short on keeping up with transportation needs.

The campaign is also pointing to a provision in the referendum that provides specific oversight responsibilities on how revenue is spent. The referendum — No. 2 on the Hillsborough ballot — requires an independent oversight committee with 13 members who ensure money is spent in accordance with the referendum by conducting annual audits.

The members cannot be elected officials or earn or otherwise receive direct or indirect compensation from any of the agencies allocating resources. That includes the three cities in Hillsborough County and the county as well as HART.

All For Transportation has widespread backing from bipartisan groups included the Greater Tampa, South Tampa and Upper Tampa Bay chambers of commerce, Visit Tampa Bay and the Tampa Bay Times.

But opposition is out there. The Florida chapter of Americans For Prosperity launched an ad last week that blasts the referendum as an unnecessary tax hike.

However, other than AFP, there is no local organized opposition to the transportation initiative.

No Tax For Tracks, the committee registered with the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections that fought the 2010 referendum, has not raised funds. Meanwhile, All For Transportation has raised more than $2 million.

An urban future means growth for all cities, not just mega-cities

By Hania Zlotnik

This story is part of What Happens Next, our complete guide to understanding the future. Read more predictions about the Future of Cities.

The future is urban—but it does not lie exclusively in mega-cities.

About a decade ago, for the first time in history, the number of people living in urban areas surpassed that of those living in rural ones. But “urban” does not mean New York or Beijing or Rome. About half the urban population still lives in fairly small cities of fewer than 500,000 people (at least in developing countries) that may resemble rural areas more than mega-cities. Europe, for instance, has just two mega-cities and many smaller cities.

There are already 29 mega-cities with populations of 10 million or more—including Delhi, Shanghai, Mexico City, Sao Paulo, Lagos and Kinshasa—but they make up just 12% of the global urban population. By 2035, we’re expected to have 50 mega-cities, but they would only account for 16% of all urban dwellers.

What’s more, urbanization has not advanced at the same pace in all regions. Europe and Northern America urbanized early, and their populations are already mostly urban (74.5% and 82% respectively). So are those of Latin America and the Caribbean, 81% of whose inhabitants live in urban areas. In sharp contrast, Africa’s population is still mostly rural (57%) and Asia’s has just become 50% urban.

Asia’s urbanization levels are largely determined by those of the two population giants, China and India. Until 1990, they were among the least urbanized countries in the world, with only 25% of their respective populations living in cities. Since then, China’s economic transformation has been accompanied by very rapid urbanization: China is expected to be three-quarters urban by 2038, up from 60% today. India, by contrast, still lags far behind with just about a third of its population living in cities, a proportion expected to rise to 45% by 2038.

High urbanization levels are associated with higher GDP. As the experience of China shows, rapid economic growth tends to accelerate urbanization. When high shares of the population make their living from agriculture, the productivity of that sector tends to be low. By contrast, during economic development, the most dynamic sectors of the economy tend to cluster in urban centers—or even give rise to them.

In China, for instance, the economic liberalization that began in 1978 promoted the development of enterprises in rural villages, which led to an economic boom in rural areas. The growth of rural enterprises spurred the development of new towns and cities by making villages become increasingly urban. As a consequence, the number of cities in China grew from 193 in 1978 to 655 in 2008, with the majority of new cities being small or medium-sized. The emergence of so many new cities—many located near the rural areas from which they derived their dynamism—helped reduce the impact of rural-to-urban migration on the large cities of China.

The movement of people from rural to urban areas is only one of the ways in which urban populations grow. Additions to the urban population also happen because births exceed deaths in urban areas, or because new cities emerge or existing cities expand, often encompassing former rural settlements. In some of the least developed countries, urban populations increase mainly because urban couples have many children who survive to be adults.

Rural-to-urban migration has not in general been the major contributor to urban population growth in developing countries.

 

For instance, in Niger, where the population is mostly rural (84%), the number of urban dwellers is doubling every 17 years because fertility is still a high seven children per women. Similarly, in much of Africa, high fertility is fueling rapid urban population growth, implying that increasing urbanization in the region is often not indicative of economic dynamism.

Demographers estimate that in most developing countries since the 1960s, the excess of births over deaths has accounted for well over half of the population increase in urban areas. Therefore, rural-to-urban migration, though significant over certain periods, has not in general been the major contributor to urban population growth in developing countries. Furthermore, in highly urbanized countries the majority of internal migrants already originate in cities and simply move to other cities, therefore having no impact on the overall size of the urban population. That is the case in the United States, in most European countries, and in highly urbanized developing countries, such as Brazil.

Urbanization is mostly positive. Evidence from developing countries shows that, on average, people living in urban areas are better off than rural dwellers. Because urbanites have better access to health care, they have better health and live longer than rural dwellers; their educational attainment is higher because educational institutions are better and more easily accessible in urban than in rural areas; and they benefit from a more diversified labor market than that typical of rural areas.  Nevertheless, cities in developing countries are not free from stresses: high levels of underemployment, the growth of slums, lack of adequate infrastructure, and costly services are problems that remain on the agenda of countless cities.

The expected expansion of cities in the developing world poses a number of challenges, including the necessity of generating decent jobs for their growing populations and providing them with adequate urban services in terms of housing, water and sanitation, transportation, electrification, nutrition, education, and health care. Furthermore, over the next few decades, cities will have to increase their resilience to the consequences of climate change, especially considering that many populous cities—such as Shanghai, Osaka, Mumbai, New York, Miami, Rio de Janeiro, Alexandria, and Durban—are located in coastal areas that are very likely to be affected by rising sea levels. Though a few of the coastal cities are beginning to take measures to increase their resilience to floods and storm surges, if the average global temperature increases beyond 2° celsius, large tracts of urban land will be submerged and people will have to move elsewhere.

Technology and economies of scale may facilitate addressing some of these challenges. But in most countries, proactive planning for ensuring the resilience of urban centers is still the exception rather than the rule. Innovative approaches will be necessary to ensure that urban centers may continue to offer the best chances of enjoying long and productive lives. These approaches will require educating and nudging people to practice resource conservation, especially with regard to energy and water use. Technology may provide some solutions but it is ultimately the adoption and consistent use of appropriate technologies by each of us that will make a difference.

(Note: All statistics cited in this piece are derived from World Urbanization Prospects: The 2018 Revision, produced by the Population Division of the United Nations.)

Millennial workforce split on transit options

September 17, 2018 11:14 AM
Updated September 17, 2018 11:14 AM
This week’s question to South Florida CEOs who are on the Miami Herald CEO Roundtable: Statistics show millennials don’t want to own cars and prefer to use Uber and public transportation whenever possible. Have you seen this trend reflected in your workforce?

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While there are Community Care Plan employees who will use Uber or public transportation on an occasional basis, given that our office isn’t in a downtown urban location, I don’t believe that it has been a trend for our employees.

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We have quite a few millennials working for us, and they all enjoy their automobiles. The statistics which shows that many millennials prefer not to own cars are heavily influenced by cities that have had far better public transportation for many years than most major cities in Florida. The independence of owning our own cars is deeply entrenched in the minds of all Floridians, including millennials.

Armando Caceres, CEO, founder, All Florida Paper

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Many of our younger employees choose to live downtown and put off owning a car. I’m noticing the buses, trolleys and Metrorail are bustling with people and all of these services are becoming more reliable because of increased use. This is all great news for our city.

Kelly-Ann Cartwright, executive partner, Holland & Knight Miami chair of the firm’s Directors Committee

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Although I have not yet seen it in my workforce, I have seen it with millennial family members. There is something to be said about being able to shed the expenses and headaches that come with automobiles/commuting and instead, using that time and money for more fulfilling endeavors. I think millennials are on the right track with this trend.

Ralph De La Rosa, president, CEO, Imperial Freight

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None of our employees use public transportation, likely because we aren’t located near any major transit system. Uber has been a great addition to the market, but as a company, we don’t use it all that much.

Jalal Farooq, principal, Al-Farooq Corporation

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In the last several years, we have seen a steady decline in students bringing a car to campus. Students are using Uber and Lyft, Zip Cars, biking and bike-share, public transit, e-scooters, and other ways to get around. The university is encouraging carpooling, especially through app-based services, to further reduce traffic on and around campus. The University of Miami is working with community partners to make a variety of transit options more available and we strive to create a campus that is increasingly pedestrian-friendly.

Dr. Julio Frenk, president, University of Miami

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We haven’t seen that phenomenon with the millennials at our workplace. They all still enjoy owning their own cars.

Kaizad Hansotia, founder, CEO, Gurkha Cigars

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I can’t say that any of our employees have given up their cars completely. Miami is a big city and the truth is you need a car. That being said, I know that the employees based out of our Coral Gables office are constantly taking advantage of the Freebee cars and trolleys. They’re extremely convenient to get around Downtown Gables — particularly in these hot summer months. Uber and Lyft also are good options when you need to get to a meeting in Downtown or Brickell and want to avoid the inconvenience and high cost of parking.

Javier Holtz, chairman, CEO, Marquis Bank

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Yes, most millennials do not want the cost and commitment associated with owning, insuring and maintaining a vehicle and are used to shared concepts as opposed to private ownership. We are living in the Uber generation and developers need to consider this when planning future developments. For example, our upcoming Miami River Walk apartment development is a transit-oriented project, which will appeal to millennials due to its extensive amenity offering, close proximity to offices and entertainment options in Downtown and Brickell, and value price offering.

Camilo Miguel Jr., founder, CEO, Mast Capital

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We find most people are still driving to work. However, I have recently experienced upper level management using Uber for daytime meetings in order to maximize efficiency.

Noreen Sablotsky, founder, CEO, Imalac

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I have witnessed a few employees opting for Uber/Lyft service going to and from work. Though it only seems to make sense monetarily if they use the shared ride option, which cuts costs and lowers their carbon footprint. Otherwise, it can cost more than the expenses for a used car, depending on how often they are out and about, i.e., monthly note, gas, car insurance, parking.

Deborah Spiegelman, CEO, Miami Children’s Museum

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While there is an uptick in use of Uber and ride-share as options, many of our associates are millennials and they still drive to work daily. We haven’t yet seen an increase in the use of public transportation among the millennial demographic specifically.

Steve Upshaw, CEO, Cross Country Home Services

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Political waves over sea level rise

By Tom McLaughlin, tmclaughlin@nwfdailynews.com
Published Aug 24, 2018

 

deep political divide runs through American politics. It’s a gap stretching from a place where talk of sea level rise ends and conversation about climate change begins.While sea level rise is a subject most lawmakers are willing to at least touch upon, the topic of climate change is either ignored or ridiculed in many corners of Tallahassee and Washington.

“Sea level rise is more palatable,” said Susan Glickman, the Florida director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. “That’s due in part to its undeniability.”

Long-time Republican strategist Mac Stipanovich, who splits his time between Tallahassee and Destin, lays climate change “denialism” squarely at the feet of the party he represents.

“Denying climate change has become a part of the right-wing Republican dogma, just like Second Amendment absolutism and lower taxes in all cases,” Stipanovich said.

If climate change is real, and manmade, Stipanovich said, it becomes “a huge serious problem” to be dealt with, and attempting to address the issue, either through carbon taxes, zoning restrictions or other means “would be politically unpopular.”

That, the strategist concluded, makes addressing climate change a low percentage play for Republicans. Implementing policies that will only make a small group of environmentally concerned activists happy “would be politically unpopular.”

“It’s now enshrined in Republican dogma to be a climate denier,” Stipanovich said. “And if we’ve learned anything recently, you can’t twitch a bit when it comes to the new right wing Republican dogma or you’re excommunicated.”

Florida Gov. Rick Scott has proven the equal to any Washington D.C. denialist. Arguably the state’s most famous Republican, the governor turned U.S. Senate candidate made national news in 2015 when he was credibly accused of preventing state employees from even uttering the words “climate change.”

Adam Putnam and Ron DeSantis, who are competing as Republicans to replace Scott in the governor’s mansion, appear poised to stay the conservative course where climate change and sea level rise are concerned. Neither Scott, Putnam nor DeSantis responded to several Gatehouse Media requests to complete a short sea level rise survey.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Adam Putnam. (Associated Press / John Raoux)

Putnam was the only Republican offered the survey who even responded to it with a statement.

“The threat of sea-levels rising presents a challenge to our beautiful beaches and booming tourism industry,” Putnam said. “This is an issue of focusing more efforts into investing in the infrastructure for Florida to be a strong, resilient state. We need to have beach re-nourishment, we need to support our estuaries, we need to invest in infrastructure that will harden our coastlines and allow us to move well fields inland.”

Asked to differentiate between sea level rise and climate change, a Putnam spokeswoman offered “we have no change to the statement as submitted.”

Long after the survey was sent, DeSantis, at a campaign stop in Englewood, did acknowledge that climate change “may be a factor” in creating an ongoing red tide crisis in the Gulf of Mexico in South Florida.

“I certainly wouldn’t rule out warmer waters having an impact; it seems reasonable,” DeSantis told Gatehouse Media’s Zac Anderson.

He termed climate change “more of a national and international issue” than one facing Floridians.

Share your thoughts on sea level rise in Florida by completing this interactive survey

 

Tide gauge measurements at several points across Florida provide proof that not only are the world’s oceans rising, but that the pace with which they are doing so has accelerated since 2006. Studies consistently show the flooding is happening with more frequency.

This year flooding caused by high tides is anticipated to occur 60 percent more often in the United States than it did in 2000, according to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration study.

A dock is submerged after heavy rain moved through the area in 2017 in Fort Walton Beach, Florida. (Nick Tomechek / Daily News)

Glickman said sea levels can be expected to rise between six inches and 2.9 feet by 2050. Experts say that between 2005 and 2017, $7.4 billion has been lost in home value across 5 coastal states due to sea level rise, and Florida’s $5.4 billion in losses are the most of any state.

“No matter what we do now we’re looking at an impact,” she said during a recent conference call. “We need to be making long term decisions.”

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Philip Levine. (Associated Press / Chris O’Mear)

Phil Levine, one of five Democrats running this year for governor, became known as an advocate for steeling Florida against sea level rise when he was mayor of Miami Beach. Levine even boasts of having campaigned for that job from a kayak, paddling down the middle of a busy street inundated by flooding for which sea level rise was to blame.

“While some people get swept into office, I kind of got floated into office,” Levine likes to say.

Levine and two fellow Democratic gubernatorial candidates, Andrew Gillum and Chris King, provided lengthy answers to the Gatehouse Media survey questions about sea level rise.

Gubernatorial candidates Gwen Graham and Jeff Greene did not participate. U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson also declined to participate.

Levine used the survey to point out that hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent in Miami Beach to raise roads, install seawater pumps, improve building codes and erect sea walls to protect the city.

“The city has become a model for others around the world confronting climate change,” he said.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum. (Associated Press /  Lynne Sladky)

Gillum called for state-wide investments in infrastructure, the elimination of carbon emissions and coordination between local, regional and federal governments to find solutions to climate issues.

“I would direct all relevant state agencies to begin planning for sea level rise mitigation and adaptation, and to prevent further salt water intrusion,” he said. “And I would put scientists and science back in charge of our state’s climate change policies, not lobbyists.”

King said he has made environmental policy a cornerstone of his campaign.

“I have big, bold ideas for Florida on issues such as climate change, rising seas, Everglades’ restoration, clean water and air and building a clean energy economy,” he said in response to the Gatehouse Media survey.

Glickman and Rafe Pomerance, a former State Department official, contend that now is a crucial time to be talking about sea level rise and risking the leap to the scientifically linked proposition of climate change.

The Washington D.C. culture, though, has come to be exemplified by people like GOP Sen. James Inhofe, who, as chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, once famously tossed a snowball onto the floor of the Senate and asked how snow could exist if the planet were warming.

Politics is hindering the country from moving forward on climate issues at a critical time in the nation’s history, Pomerance said.

“Congress is tied down fundamentally because of denialism,” he said. “This is holding us hostage to actually doing something about the issue.”

U.S. Rep Charlie Crist, a Democrat representing Florida’s 13th Congressional District, said unlike many others, Florida’s congressional delegation seems willing to see things differently when sea level rise and climate change are debated.

“Our delegation, they’re pretty moderate on the thing, for the most part. It’s hard to be a Floridian and not kinda get the environment thing,” Crist said.

Florida’s First Congressional District U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, of Fort Walton Beach, is as conservatively Republican as anyone in the House, but he’s also a member of the 84 member Climate Solutions Caucus.

“I don’t agree with some of the views some Democrats and even some Republicans have about the strategy to combat the problem, but I certainly can acknowledge that the earth is warming and humans make some contribution to that warming,” Gaetz said. “I see sea level rise as a consequence of climate change.”

Reps. Jim Jordan (R-OH), Ron DeSantis (R-FL), and Matt Gaetz (R-FL) answer questions during a Freedom Tour” campaign stop in Navarre, Saturday, August, 18, 2018. (Michael Snyder / Daily News)

The sea level rise/climate change discussion is “far too driven by peoples’ partisan lens,” Gaetz said.

“I think Republicans and Democrats need to be able to look at the same data and come to the same scientific conclusion, and then we can disagree about what the best strategy is to deal with the problem,” he said. “I’ve been very disappointed that too many in Washington aren’t even willing to establish a common set of baseline facts.”

The Climate Solutions Caucus, Gaetz said, is a “Noah’s Ark” caucus, that only admits a member of one political party alongside a member of the other political party. He said he’s encouraged to see the 84-member caucus continuing to grow.

The Caucus was actually founded by Florida House members Carlos Curbelo, a Republican and Ted Deutch, a Democrat. Fellow Floridian Bill Posey, also a Republican, recently became the newest of the state delegation to become a Caucus member. Republicans Gaetz, Brian Mast and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Democrats Crist and Stephanie Murphy are members.

The Caucus has established three primary short term goals.

Its first is to bring Democrats and Republicans together to acknowledge the basic science behind sea level rise and climate change, Gaetz said.

“It’s hard to deny the clearance on bridges in Florida is changing,” Gaetz said. “That seems to be indicative of sea level rise.”

The second Climate Solutions Caucus objective is to educate House members about bad climate-oriented legislation.

“There are times in bills when someone will try to ban a review or study about the impacts of climate change,” he said. “Usually the Caucus sticks together to maintain an analysis of climate change in the other work that the Congress does.”

Water from the Santa Rosa Sound in Mary Esther Florida in the Panhandle laps against seagrass. This year flooding caused by high tides is anticipated to occur 60 percent more often in the United States than it did in 2000, according to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration study. [Devon Ravine / Daily News]

The third objective, Gaetz said, is coming together as a non-partisan caucus to find “solutions we can agree on.”“I think the federal government is going to have a role in dealing with the consequences of climate change because many federal assets will be impacted by the affects of climate change, notably our military,” he said. “We cannot expect states to deal with the evolving territorial claims in the Arctic that are exacerbated in their complexity by climate change.”

The military and protecting the nation’s military assets from rising seas has continued to be a priority in Washington, even while other agencies, notably the Federal Department of Transportation and Environmental Protection Agency have slashed programs.

On Aug. 13, President Trump signed a defense authorization bill that includes a requirement that the military design and modify its buildings to better resist flooding, and calls for new military installations constructed in the 100-year flood plain be designed to withstand an additional two feet of flooding.

It also authorizes the U.S. Coast Guard to acquire six new ships capable of moving through sea ice, and calls upon the military to look into Chinese activity in the Arctic.

As with many other sea level rise or climate change-related issues, even the proposed military appropriations ran into resistance. Reps. Scott Perry (R-Pa.) and Ken Buck (R-Colo.) attempted to delete a requirement for a climate vulnerability study that had been added to the defense bill.

The amendment was defeated by 234-185, with the victory secured, at least in part, through the work of the Climate Solutions Caucus.

“It’s challenging, with the makeup of the body as it is, at present,” Crist said of moving climate-related legislation through Congress. “There’s an opportunity, though, this year, for things to change, at least in the House. If that occurs, maybe we can do a lot of good things.”

Senator Bill Nelson speaks to members of the media recently in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida. (Nick Tomecek / Daily News)

With primary elections fast approaching in this year’s governor’s race, and the U.S. Senate showdown between Nelson and Scott on the horizon in November, a coalition of environmental organizations on Aug. 15 released a study meant to advise competing candidates on the state’s gravest concerns.

Climate change is one of six issues specifically addressed in the document, called Trouble in Paradise.

“With approximately 75 percent of this state’s population in counties lining the coast, Florida must prepare for the increasingly severe weather and sea level rise caused by climate change,” the report states.

The study calls for Florida to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, invest in renewable energy, harden vulnerable infrastructure and steer development away from “areas vulnerable to the impact of severe weather,” Gatehouse Media’s Dale White reported.

It also calls for opposition to offshore drilling, the adoption of building codes the promotion of higher energy efficiency and expanded tax incentives for electric vehicles.

Pointing out the risks and economic impacts from flooding and higher storm surges, the report issues “a clarion call for leadership,” calling on the new governor to hire and appoint respected leaders who understand the myriad issues facing the state, the report said.

“Addressing community resilience and climate change in a proactive manner not only prepares this state for future challenges but also will result in more livable communities and long-term economic savings for taxpayers.”

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GateHouse Media reporter Dinah Voyles Pulver contributed to this report.