By Nicholas Nehamas
May 17, 2015
That’s the cry from South Florida business owners as backed-up roads take their toll on companies from Palm Beach County to the Keys.
A Miami Herald survey distributed through local chambers of commerce found that businesspeople overwhelmingly rate traffic here as “very bad,” saying it has gotten significantly worse in the last three years. More than half said employees at their company are “always or often” late because of traffic.
Though Miami’s traffic isn’t the nation’s worst — that dubious distinction goes to cities including Honolulu, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Austin — the complaints aren’t the usual, idle grumbling.
Hard numbers back up the fact that local traffic is slowing to a crawl: Congestion in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties was up 21 percent in 2014 compared to the previous year, according to a study by the global traffic solutions firm INRIX. Locals now waste an average of 37 hours per year stuck in traffic, seven more than the year before, meaning South
Florida leapfrogged greater Washington, D.C., as the 10th-most congested metro area in the country, Seattle-based INRIX found.
From mom-and-pop shops to multi-national corporations, traffic is making it harder to do business in South Florida.
“Everybody knows our roads are really, really crowded and it’s impossible to navigate during the day,” said Mitchell Friedman, a partner at the developer Pinnacle Housing Group. “It’s making it much harder for people to commute to work.”
The reasons for the growing traffic nightmare are clear.
Congestion fell 30 percent nationally after the recession. Now that the economy is back on its feet, workers laid off during the downturn have found new jobs and are hitting the roads during the morning rush. South Florida’s population is booming as out-of-towners move in. Tourists are flocking to the beaches. Gas is relatively cheap.
All that means more cars on the road, especially in a city where many commuters can’t easily use public transit.
Development becomes a sword that cuts both ways if infrastructure can’t keep up, said Tony Villamil, founder of the Coral Gables-based consulting firm Washington Economic Group.
“The whole mark of a modern economy, especially a logistics-type economy like ours, is the ability to move people and merchandise quickly from one place to the next,” said Villamil, whose firm has conducted traffic studies for the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority.
Making your way from South Miami-Dade or Broward into downtown Miami’s central business district can feel like a journey through Dante’s circles of hell, workers say.
On average, it takes workers in the United States 25.5 minutes to get to their jobs, according to U.S. Census data. But in South Florida’s more affordable suburbs, that number rises. Commuters in Homestead face a daily, one-way trip to work of 32.5 minutes. People who work in Kendall (30.5 minutes),
Miramar (30.4 minutes), Pembroke Pines (29.9 minutes) and Weston (29.5 minutes) also face longer-than-average daily commutes, Census data show.
That means businesses in the urban core — where affordable housing is scarce — can lose out on employees.
“I had some job offers in Miami when I graduated college,” said Ashley Fierman, who lives in Cooper City and works in public relations. “But it’s no secret how bad traffic is in Miami. It’s like a parking lot. I couldn’t face that everyday.”
Fierman ended up taking a job in Plantation.
In the Miami Herald survey, businesspeople were clear that they think traffic is holding the local economy back.
About 86 percent of the 429 people who responded to the survey answered “yes” to the question: “Do you think traffic is hurting the economy in South Florida?” About 70 percent of those surveyed said traffic was hurting their companies directly.
They ranged from doctors and lawyers to restaurant owners, real estate agents and executives at major corporations.
Susan Sherr, an optometrist at an eye doctor’s practice in South Miami, says as many as a quarter of her patients run late to appointments because of traffic.
“The later-in-the-day appointments tend to be the trickiest,” Sherr said. “They’re hitting that people-coming-out-of-work traffic.”
Late patients mean longer waits for all involved.
“It throws off our whole schedule completely,” Sherr said. “I like to use every second of the time I’m given with people. If they come in 10 minutes late, it’s not fair to take 10 minutes from the next person.”
But Sherr said she knows it’s not her patients’ fault.
“It’s part of life around here,” she said. “I really feel for the patients who call and say they’re stuck in some kind of awful jam. I know it. I live it.”
Construction can be a particular pain for business owners. And these days it feels like every roadway in South Florida from the 826/836 interchange to Alton Road on Miami Beach is under construction — or blocked by the construction of some new tower.
“I hear complaints about traffic all the time from members,” said Jerry Libbin, president and CEO of the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce, where Alton Road has been under construction since the spring of 2013 to alleviate flooding. “Unfortunately, some members feel a lot more pain than others, particularly when there’s construction outside their business. It can be very frustrating when the lanes get narrowed and then the construction workers park on the swales and take up parking that could be used for customers.”
Tourists are also unhappy about the backed-up roads, according to a 2015 survey by the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau. Traffic was the number one complaint from both domestic and international tourists.
As vexing as traffic can be, it’s not necessarily stopping businesses from moving to Miami — at least not yet.
South Florida has a variety of advantages for companies looking to relocate, including its proximity to Latin America, and Miami traffic isn’t as bad as in some other major cities, said William Hearn, a senior vice president at national broker CBRE’s corporate relocation group in Atlanta.
But if congestion keeps getting worse, businesses may think twice about the Magic City, Hearn said.
INRIX found that because of congestion, South Florida drivers take an average of 18 percent longer to reach their destinations than if they were driving in free-flowing traffic.
“Employers are paying more and more attention to average commute times and how easy it will be for their employees to get to work,” Hearn said. “Congestion is an issue that can definitely get you eliminated from a company’s list.”
And companies already based in Miami are looking more and more to set up shop near major roads and interstates, said Wayne Schuchts, a principal at Avison Young.
“They want to be near the turnpike, I-95 and I-75,” Schuchts said. “They need to make it easier for their employees to get to work.”
The cost of traffic is difficult to calculate, and economists warn that it is an imprecise science. But here’s one rough calculation: The average South Floridian wastes 37 hours a year in traffic. Multiply that by the region’s average hourly wage ($21.13) and you get $781.81 in lost productivity per year for every worker because of traffic. And that’s not counting gas.
INRIX has calculated that the four most congested stretches of road in South Florida (four segments of Florida’s Turnpike, the Palmetto Expressway and the Dolphin Expressway that total 31 miles) cost the local economy more than
$97 million per year in lost worker productivity and wasted fuel.
COST OF FRUSTRATION
Regardless of the true cost, traffic is a very real, daily frustration for a variety
of local businesses.
Michael Góngora, an attorney who commutes from Miami Beach to Coral Gables, said worsening congestion has been a problem for law firms.
“Most attorneys are compensated for the time it takes to drive to the courthouse or meetings,” said Góngora, a former Miami Beach city commissioner. “So we end up billing our clients more and more to fight through traffic. Nobody is happy about that kind of billing situation.”
Góngora said he once had to conduct a court hearing on his cellphone as he sat in gridlock on I-95. “The call kept dropping and the judge was yelling at me to pull over, which is impossible on that road,” he remembered. “That is one experience I never want to repeat.”
Farther south, Rick LeMaire worries that frustrated customers may turn around and give up when they hit the jams that have become all too common near the car dealership he runs off the turnpike in Florida City.
“It used to be a seasonal phenomenon, seeing the turnpike get backed up with people going to the Keys,” LeMaire said. “But for the last three or four years, it starts like clockwork every Friday morning and lasts the whole weekend.”
There’s no question that cities experiencing an economic boom will suffer from traffic jams without proper planning, said Jim Bak, director of community relations at the traffic analytics firm INRIX.
The company, founded by former Microsoft employees, collects traffic data from government transit authorities, major commercial delivery companies, taxi cabs and other sources.
“Our infrastructure around the country has been at maximum capacity for some time,” Bak said. “There’s just no place for those cars to go.”
The greatest traffic crunch may be coming in the downtown and Brickell, areas that once emptied out after office hours. Now they are filled with luxury condo towers, popular restaurants and busy cranes.
“We’ve been going through a transformation of what the downtown looks like,” said Alyce Robertson, executive director of the Downtown Development Authority, a semi-autonomous, publicly funded agency.
The downtown’s population has nearly doubled since the turn of the millennium, surpassing 80,000 in 2014, according to a DDA report.
“Urban sprawl is what got us here,” added Robertson, who said the DDA is pushing to increase public transit options in the downtown and encourage more walkable streets. “By repopulating the urban core, we can cut down on some of these traffic issues.”
In the meantime, businesses are left to struggle along. They have to adjust to South Florida’s new reality: gridlock.
“If you live in Aventura, you’re not really going to want to take a listing in Gables by the Sea,” said Danny Hertzberg, a real estate agent based in Miami Beach. “It takes too long to get there. That never used to be a problem but it is today, and it limits your market.”
Congestion is a problem for companies both big and small.
“We don’t keep hard numbers on traffic,” said Dan McMackin, a spokesman for UPS. “But anecdotally, any of our drivers can tell you that they have to budget more time than they did a few years ago for deliveries.”
And ever since the roads started clogging up, the Adrienne Arsht Center has sent traffic alerts to ticket-holders via email or phone.
“We tell them that your curtain is at 8 o’clock but there’s major construction or heavy traffic and we suggest taking this route or redirect them to alternative parking,” said John Richard, CEO of the performing arts center.
“But I’m getting worried that if things keep going the way they are, people won’t be able to access the downtown anymore,” Richard continued. “We have all these people who want to live here and be part of the new Miami. We can’t blow it.”
Robert Hill, general manager of the InterContinental Miami hotel in the downtown, agreed that Miami faces a tipping point in terms of traffic.
“When you look at the on-ramp to get on I-95 and out of the downtown, the traffic is blocked for four or five blocks,” Hill said. “And if the bridge at Brickell Ave. goes up, then nothing moves.”
Hill said the new condos, restaurants and big, mixed-use projects like Brickell City Centre and Miami Worldcenter will only attract more people into the already congested downtown. But once locals and visitors reach their breaking point with traffic, the area’s promise will quickly fade, he said.
“It doesn’t matter if we have great retail and shopping malls and restaurants around the downtown,” Hill said. “If people can’t get in because of gridlock, there’s going to be nobody here.”