The push to expand rail in Miami-Dade County continues to advance on multiple tracks — and advocates won’t take “bus” for an answer.
Even with no clear funding path to launching new rail lines, leaders demanding more train options for commuters argue that if Miami-Dade can just settle on a plan, the money will follow.
“It’s going to take bold action … to get some things done in this community,” Commissioner Dennis Moss, who wants Metrorail extended to his district in southern Miami-Dade County, said at a recent meeting of a county transportation board. “If we’re going to do things the way we’ve done them in the past, we’re going to wind up in the same place.”
Launched in the spring of 2016, Miami-Dade’s Strategic Miami Area Rapid Transit plan — SMART for short — raised expectations for an historic rail expansion after it launched studies on transit options for six of the county’s busiest commuting corridors. The routes roughly mirror the new rail lines promised voters in 2002 in exchange for approving a new half-percent sales tax for transportation projects.
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We know we have a funding gap. We need find ways to address that funding gap.
Aileen Bouclé, director of the Miami-Dade Transportation Planning Organization
As the $50 million worth of SMART consultant studies continue, future rail prospects were dealt a blow in July when Mayor Carlos Gimenez released a $534 million proposal to use high-tech buses along dedicated corridors north and south of Miami as a more-affordable option than the $1.6 billion it would cost to extend Metrorail along the same routes.
The plan met with instant backlash from other elected officials demanding rail, and Gimenez said he remained open to pursuing more train options if the money materialized.
But with Miami-Dade already imposing cuts on Metrorail to close budget holes caused by declining transit ridership and weakness in the transportation tax, his administration’s financial forecasts showed the county couldn’t afford the millions in new operating expenses that even a single new rail line requires.
Despite the financial obstacles, elected leaders, lobbyists and industry executives continue pursuing rail alternatives for Miami-Dade. Here are six of the most-talked-about paths to expanding train options:
1. Better numbers: The most discouraging source of news for rail advocates came from the Gimenez administration’s recent forecasts showing yearly shortfalls of $20 million or more if the county pursued rail in the northern and southern corridors. But those assumptions may be tested. The Transportation Planning Organization, a countywide board dominated by county commissioners, has begun working on ways to present a financial plan that would build rail north and south.
At a meeting of its Fiscal Priorities committee, director Aileen Bouclé said a consultant determined the gap would be about $18 million a year. But that could drop with the influx of new revenue. She said adding in rental dollars from developments along two Metrorail stops reduces the shortfall to $16 million.
“We know we have a funding gap,” she said. “We need find ways to address that funding gap.”
2. Save money by using existing tracks: The Gimenez administration recently resumed talks with freight-train operator CSX about purchasing 15 miles of track that runs west from Miami and roughly parallel to the Dolphin Expressway, one of the SMART corridors. That concept predates the SMART plan by more than a decade, and the effort to convert CSX’s existing east-west railway into a passenger option has fizzled in the past.
But with a new CEO of the Boston company eager for deals, and Miami-Dade’s urgency on the rail front mounting, the path to a new east-west rail line could be better than ever. While CSX had previously held out for the county to purchase 35 miles of track system in Miami-Dade, the company now is willing to consider selling just the 15 miles of the east-west “Lehigh Spur.”
Rail executives and members of the Gimenez administration met in July to explore a sale, and CSX expected to have the Lehigh Spur appraised by the fall, according to a letter from the company to the county’s transportation chief, Alice Bravo.
“Thank you for the opportunity to meet on July 20th to discuss Miami-Dade County’s interest in purchasing CSX’s Lehigh Spur for potential East-West commuter service,” Catherine Adkins, an executive with CSX’s real estate arm, wrote Bravo on Aug. 11, “which would provide a direct, cost-efficient and effective transit solution to downtown Miami.”
In an interview, Bravo downplayed the discussions as part of the county’s due diligence given CSX’s apparent willingness to sell its Miami-Dade tracks piecemeal. “We talked about their options,” she said.
3. Use toll dollars to operate a new rail line: If Miami-Dade did arrange for Tri-Rail to run on tracks next to CSX’s cargo trains, it would still cost millions of new dollars to operate. While the county’s transit budget already is under strain with the existing system, some elected officials want toll dollars to subsidize a new east-west rail line.
The Miami-Dade Expressway Authority, a board appointed by the county and state, has already agreed to fund express buses along the Dolphin as its contribution to the SMART plan. County commissioners, led by chairman Esteban “Steve” Bovo, are pushing for more: MDX agreeing to subsidize a new rail line running along the Dolphin.
“The problem now is you’re paying the tolls, and you’re still stuck in traffic because there is no alternative,” Bovo said.
In June, the MDX board rejected funding rail, saying it was too expensive. But a sweeping compromise could be in play.
A top priority for the MDX board is to extend the Dolphin, formally known as State Road 836, about 15 miles to the southwest, a route that currently takes it past the county’s urban-development boundary (often called the UDB). Miami-Dade commissioners already blocked that idea in committee. But Moss, an original No vote on the extension, recently said he could switch to a Yes if rail was an option.
“I can support the extension of the 836 based on certain parameters,” he told members of a fiscal committee that he chairs for the county’s Transportation Planning Organization. “That is: We prohibit or discourage the extension as a reason to move the UDB. And that they commit to the rail — or transit — alternative along 836. That they take that on.”
4. Have someone else run it: The low-hanging fruit of the SMART plan was supposed to be extending Tri-Rail to the northeast, between Miami and Aventura. Miami-Dade, Miami and Florida pooled their money to spend $69 million on building Tri-Rail a depot in the new Miami Central complex in downtown Miami. That’s the southern launching pad for the for-profit Brightline passenger train set to start service to West Palm Beach at the end of 2017, and it was supposed to let Tri-Rail use the same tracks to serve a longer list of local stops.
That effort appears to have stalled when Brightline broke off talks with Miami-Dade over renting track time to Tri-Rail. And the real estate company behind Brightline, Florida East Coast Industries, has floated the idea of it offering the commuter service itself, rather than bringing on a government-operated train that could compete for northeast riders.
If we’re going to do things the way we’ve done them in the past, we’re going to wind up in the same place.
Miami-Dade County Commissioner Dennis Moss
People on both sides say they expect talks to resume once Brightline launches and Miami-Dade and Florida East Coast are able hold intense negotiations. Barring the entire idea being scrapped, the Northeast still looks to be the most likely corridor to see new rail stops.
5. Divert property taxes: An ordinance up for a preliminary vote Thursday by the County Commission would let Miami-Dade create a massive tax district stretching at least a half mile out from each SMART plan corridor. Miami-Dade would then take up to half of the property-tax revenue generated by growth within the district and use it to pay for SMART expenses, including operations of new rapid-bus and new rail lines. That would mean a windfall of money for the SMART corridors, but a loss for police, parks and other core government services that rely on property taxes for their budgets.
The legislation would create the equivalent of a massive community redevelopment district reserved for new transit expenses. The county’s budget office has resisted the concept, noting Miami-Dade’s financial forecasts count on rising property values to fund mounting costs of government. But advocates see new transit lines boosting real estate values enough to pay for the plan.
“New transit lines will cause property values to go up at a faster pace than they would otherwise,” said Eric Zichella, a lobbyist and a CSX consultant. “Everything that’s around a transit corridor is going to be more valuable.”
6. Raise taxes: The strategy that’s most frequently cited as a way out of Miami-Dade’s funding squeeze is to convince voters to double the transportation tax to a full one percent. Elected leaders say that’s a possibility, but only if they can find a way to actually build something and prove tax dollars can deliver progress.
“If we can get some projects started and running,” Moss said, “I strongly believe we can go back to the public and ask the public for that extra half penny.”