Published June 9, 2008

The 'Dogs' of Transit
Miami-Dade County's transit agency has added millions of miles of new bus service since 2002 -- including some politically motivated 'dogs.'
BY LARRY LEBOWITZ

Key promises of Miami-Dade County's grand plan to transform its mass-transit system have come up as empty as the Route 82 Metrobus.

The story of the 82 -- a route that Miami-Dade Transit added in late 2005 to curry favor with a county commissioner -- illustrates one of the many ways that the People's Transportation Plan of 2002 has been hampered by politics.

Ridership on the 82, a Westchester route specially requested by Commissioner Javier Souto, is so poor that some months it has cost taxpayers $30 per rider.

Hailing each of them a taxi would have been cheaper.

It's not the only route motivated more by politics than need.

Transit added 25 new routes and made dozens of enhancements on 80 other routes after voters approved the 0.5 percent sales tax in November 2002. Ridership has risen 30 percent, or 63,000 new passengers a day.

But only 15 of the 25 new routes were had been promised in the campaign for the tax. Transit agency chiefs introduced 10 others that weren't in the plan -- including several specifically requested by commissioners.

"Most of those routes were dogs -- absolute dogs," said former transit-service planner Suzie LaPlant, who retired in December 2006 after 30 years with the county. "There was no planning, no research, no advance marketing. We just did it because some commissioner wanted it."

So why did the agency add new routes for commissioners when it hadn't finished delivering all the routes it had promised to voters?

"We did what we were told," veteran Transit scheduling chief David Fialkoff said in a recent interview.

Former Transit director Roosevelt Bradley, who presided over the historic bus expansion, defended the agency's decision to ignore some of the routes promised in 2002.

"We introduced a lot of good service -- and I don't think that story's being told," he said last week. "We had some good routes."

Nonetheless, the routes requested by commissioners consistently ranked among the agency's poorest performers, draining sales-tax revenue and Transit personnel from other pressing needs.

Some of the commission-influenced routes were discontinued in the last two years.

More "dogs," including Route 82, are being retired on June 15, the same week that commissioners will be discussing a fare increase and maybe another half-cent sales tax to rescue the transit agency from its latest financial crisis.

Costly ride

Commissioner Souto isn't happy about the fate of the 82.

"When you expand, you don't kill what was there," Souto said during a recent commission meeting, where he berated Transit Director Harpal Kapoor, stretching a rubber band to emphasize his point.

"They're killing bus routes!" said Souto, who voted against the sales tax in 2002. "That's not what the people voted for! If you expand, you don't kill what you have. You expand."

The 82 started as a tiny weekday route connecting Tropical Park and the West Miami-Dade regional library in Souto's district.

It was costly. The agency was spending $1,080 a day to serve as few as 35 passengers. That $30-a-ride cost is about 13 times the average cost of a Miami-Dade bus ride.

When the agency tried to kill the 82 last year, Souto's office intervened with former director Bradley.

Veteran planner Robert Pearsall said the agency doubled the route's length west to Florida International University in the hope of attracting more riders, and reduced the number of buses on it to minimize costs. It didn't help.

Another empty bus

Another route added at the behest of a commissioner violated the county's own growth- management policies.

Commissioner Dennis Moss, who chaired the transportation committee in 2003 and 2004, was facing a well-financed reelection foe in 2004 when he asked Transit to start planning a new route that would serve a large mobile-home park off Krome Avenue.

The Americana Village condo association had been clamoring for bus service for its 2,000 working-class residents since 1997.

The problem: The park is situated 40 blocks beyond the county's Urban Development Boundary. The county's growth policies dictate that mass transit is supposed to operate only inside the line.

"These are working-class people out there saying, 'You passed this tax,'‚" Moss said. "'You're running service, 24-hour service, all over the county. Where's our service? How about us?'‚"

Route 200 buses ran every 20 minutes during peak hours, along Quail Roost Drive between Southland Mall and the mobile-home park.

"No one rode it. Ever," said Redland activist Pat Wade, who opposes expanding the development boundary. "It would truck up and down Quail Roost Drive every 20 minutes with nobody on it."

Transit killed Route 200 in December 2005 after Wade and others complained. It cost the agency more than $2,000 a day to operate and was averaging between four and six boardings per hour -- about $14 to $17 per passenger.

Moss said he wasn't aware of the growth rules prohibiting Transit from serving areas outside the development boundary. He said underperforming routes need to be cut so funds can be devoted to the promised Metrorail expansions.

Short-lived 'dog'

Bad information led to the creation of another short-lived "dog" route in December 2005 in Commissioner Katy Sorensen's district.

A local pastor told Sorensen aide Sean McCrackine that underprivileged students from his Howard Drive neighborhood were having trouble getting to and from Killian High School.

McCrackine forwarded the tip to Transit, which trotted out Route 128, the Howard- Killian Connection, a limited-service route with two trips to the high school in the morning and two return trips at night.

The problem: Most students in the neighborhood attend Palmetto High.

The agency had no valid ridership numbers for Route 128, but Fialkoff, the scheduling chief, told The Miami Herald that on March 18, 2006, for example, it had no riders. Ten days earlier, he said, it had just one.

"The guys at Transit told me that it would have been cheaper to just buy the guy a car," McCrackine said.

Most new routes are given a two-year window to establish a following. Transit killed this one after just seven months.

"We didn't order anything. We asked them to look into" the preacher's request, Sorensen said. "I was surprised to find out later that they just did it. The last thing I want to do is waste Transit money on bad service."

LaPlant, and other current and former employees, said the eagerness to please commissioners, no matter the cost, was ingrained in the transit agency's culture for years.

"You never say 'no' to a commissioner's request," LaPlant said.

Looking for efficiency

In 2004, two years after the tax was adopted, Bradley commissioned a comprehensive study of the entire bus system -- the first thorough look at route productivity since 1986.

Transit didn't perform one before the campaign promised 17 million miles of new service because the agency didn't have the money, Bradley said.

In early 2005, researchers from the Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of South Florida reported that many of the new routes were duplicating segments of existing ones and weren't attracting enough riders to justify the costs. The researchers also suggested changes to maximize efficiency on older, existing routes.

Transit began to cut some of the troubled routes. By late 2005, after Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma sent gasoline prices soaring, commissioners asked Bradley to create new routes to meet the sudden demand.

Some "dog" routes, such as the 82, were introduced at that time, but other ones designed by the agency's veteran service planners have proved successful. They increased the number of buses on the South Dade Busway. Two new express routes on Miami Gardens Drive and Northwest Seventh Avenue are still running today.

Overall, the bus fleet has grown more than 40 percent and is younger, more operationally flexible and reliable than in 2002.

Under Kapoor, Bradley's successor and the first Transit director under the strong-mayor form of government, the agency is killing all the "dogs" and looking for more efficiency.

"It's driven purely by the data now," Fialkoff said. "If a segment doesn't meet standards, we might take a look at what's wrong and tweak the route. If it still doesn't meet standards, we cut it."