By David Adams and Zachary Fagenson
MIAMI (Reuters) - With little land left to build on between the Everglades and the Atlantic Ocean, Miami developers are going vertical, converting the city from a sprawling suburbia to a dense metropolis.
Dazzling luxury condo towers designed by top architects highlight what some have called the "Manhattanization of Miami." But with the glamor come mounting traffic woes, and politicians and residents are scrambling for long-neglected mass transit solutions.
Miami has risen to between 7th and 12th on two U.S. indexes for worst traffic congestion. The city has one of the least-developed mass transit systems among the world's major metropolitan areas.
Gridlock could tarnish the gloss on Miami's image and hurt efforts to lure new residents and companies to its sunny shores, civic leaders fear. They warn that without swift action, such as an expanded Metrorail system, rapid bus lanes and trolleys, people may find themselves trapped in their fancy pads.
Imagine the nightmare, says Seth Gordon, a Miami publicist: "You just bought an apartment, the view is to die for and the amenities are wonderful, but you can't get out."
Downtown Miami had 80,750 residents in 2014, double its population in 2000. On weekdays, the number of people in the city center surpasses 222,000.
It is poised to get more crowded as the massive $1.05 billion Brickell City Center nears completion, with a shopping mall, two office towers, almost 900 apartments and a hotel. Just to the north, the $1.7 billion Miami Worldcenter is under development, including a 765,000-square-foot mall, an 1,800-room hotel, and a 60-story condominium tower.
Exacerbating the traffic problem is a lack of affordable housing in the city center, forcing many to commute from the suburbs of Miami-Dade County, with a population of 2.6 million residents across 2,400 square miles.
Since the market revived in 2011, 239 new condo towers with 33,738 units have been proposed or are under construction in Miami-Dade County, according to Peter Zalewski of Miami-based real estate consultant Condo Vultures.
WATER BUSES AND BIKE TRAILS
Mass transit advocates say Miami has a lot of work to do.
The city's bus system is notoriously inefficient. Its Metrorail was only recently extended from downtown to the Miami airport, one of the busiest in the country. There is no rail link from the airport to the biggest tourist attraction, Miami Beach, or the downtown port of Miami which handles 5 million cruise ship passengers a year.
A public outcry over traffic congestion has prompted officials to look for ways to create an interconnected mass transit network, including dedicated rapid bus transit lanes, city trolleys, bike trails and even water buses.
"For decades we promoted a lifestyle of freedom of mobility that relied on the car and now the chickens are coming home to roost," said Miami-Dade County Commissioner Esteban Bovo.
Most agree that Miami's roads are maxed out. Still, expansion of the Metrorail at $100-200 million per mile would take years, and funding it would likely require private venture capital.
A five-day "green mobility" event this week called WHEELS is promoting hybrid solutions combining bus, rail and bike trails, with low-cost taxi services such as Uber and Lyft filling the gaps.
"Young professionals today want to live in urban areas and look less to cars," said Juan Mullerat, an architect and urban planner with PlusUrbia Design.
Over the past five years, the long under-utilized Metrorail has increased annual ridership by 24 percent, local officials said.
"It saves me time and it saves me money," said Arlen Polanco, 36, a nurse who rides Metrorail to work because the journey by car had become unbearable.
Civic activist Norman Braman, owner of Miami's largest car dealership, urges smarter traffic light synchronization that can read real-time congestion, along with steps such as Venice-style vaporettos or water buses.
"The water is already there, we don't have to wait 10 to 15 years to build a rail system," he said.
Braman, a major financial backer of U.S. Senator Marco Rubio's 2016 Republican presidential campaign, has led local efforts to defeat mass transit taxes over the last two decades. He has argued that the public sector cannot be trusted to spend the money efficiently to fix the problem.
Undeterred, local authorities are stepping up future plans through a $2 billion bond issue, including money for new diesel-electric buses equipped with Wi-Fi and a new mobile app to track buses.
New ordinances also allow downtown developers to build fewer parking spaces in new buildings to encourage a "rider-transit" culture. A recent project by Related Group, one of Miami's largest real estate firms, offered 40 studios downtown with no parking.
"People want urbanization," said Carlos Rosso, the firm's president. "I happen to own one and I rent it out without problem."
(Writing by David Adams; editing by Colleen Jenkins and David Gregorio)