All aboard! Imaginary Purple Line created to generate interest in mass transit for Miami

It’s a public call to action, an impromptu art gallery and — ultimately — a little bit of a tease.

It’s the “Purple Line,” an imaginary train station dreamed up by a group of local college students. From now until midnight Saturday, the “stop” at Northeast Second Avenue and 36th Street in Miami will feature live music and entertainers, food vendors, and displayed work by more than a dozen local artists.

The point of it all: to demonstrate Miami’s glaring lack of “real” train stations, and to fuel public demand for mass transit expansion. Miami-Dade County’s transit system may be the most comprehensive in the state, but it’s still far less useful than systems in older cities such as New York or San Francisco.

For example, Miami’s Metrorail trains — after more than 25 years of operation — only recently began service to the airport. There is still no rail line to South Beach, despite it being one of the world’s biggest tourist destinations.

“We just wanted people to start talking about it,” said Anna McMaster, one of three Florida Atlantic University urban planning graduate students who organized the two-day Purple Line event. The first in a series of simulated train “arrivals” (using a projection screen, sound effects, and an 8-foot-tall make-believe wooden train platform) was set to happen Friday evening.

Signage for the Purple Line was splashed all over this particular Wynwood intersection. Purple stenciled letters announced “the train is coming” on sections of the sidewalk. The faded pillars of a highway overpass were covered with glossy posters that preached the mass-transit gospel: one boasted of how proximity to mass transit can boost real estate values; another used maps to show how Miami has far fewer train stations than other U.S. cities.

Where the message got a little muddled, however, was on the question of whether the Purple Line was real or fake. Signs such as “Miami’s newest transit station” led some to believe that an actual train stop would soon be built.

“I was thinking, ‘Where? And how?’’’ said Sandra Batino, who normally catches the bus at that location.

McMaster said her group had actually intended for the public to mistakenly get its hopes up.

“We wanted it to be a little confusing,” she said. “Once they feel that disappointment, they will be like ‘Well, why don’t we have this?’”

It wouldn’t be the first time Miamians fell victim to a transit bait-and-switch. Miami-Dade voters in 2002 approved a half-penny transit sales tax that was supposed to pay for a massive Metrorail expansion — one new line would jut out west to Florida International University, while another would connect to the Miami Dolphins’ Sun Life Stadium.

As it turned out, county politicians had promised far more than they could ever deliver in order to win voter support. Making matters worse: a 2008 Miami Herald investigation revealed that the county frittered away much of the sales tax money on raises for the politically powerful Transport Workers Union. A wasteful hiring spree, meanwhile, awarded transit jobs to aides or relatives of at least nine local elected officials.

Despite all that, there are still some signs of progress. Metrorail’s new airport service is part of a much-larger (and generally well-regarded) transit hub that conveniently connects air travelers to a variety of transportation options, including rental cars and the Tri-Rail commuter rail line. Also, thanks to the transit tax, county residents age 65 or older get to ride buses and Metrorail for free, under a program known as the Golden Passport.

Though most of the promised Metrorail expansion is on the backburner, there has been renewed talk about constructing a light rail line connecting downtown Miami to South Beach. At the same time, the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority (which operates Tri-Rail) has discussed building a new commuter rail line that would stretch from Pompano Beach south to Downtown Miami, using existing Florida East Coast Railway tracks.

Such a plan could allow Wynwood’s make-believe Purple Line stop, which sits atop the FEC line, to one day become a real train station.

Dr. Charles Dunn, a Coral Gables family practitioner and longtime rail advocate, said for now he’s encouraged by events like Purple Line, which show that the younger generation is taking an interest in promoting mass transit.

“When I was doing this 30, 40 years ago, I was standing on a soapbox all by myself,” Dunn, 75, said. “They see the light and they got the message. I might go down there and check them out.”

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