Expanding Metrorail largely depends on Washington contributing hundreds of millions of dollars in transit aid, making U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao the key player in the ongoing drama over how to fix Miami’s gridlock woes.
On Tuesday, she held a press conference in Miami and deftly avoided providing any good news.
“Resources are an issue. It’s a resource issue for all of us,” Chao said during a press conference at Miami International Airport, flanked by Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez and Mario Diaz-Balart, the Republican congressman pleading with county leaders to help him secure federal rail dollars. “From the whole country’s point of view, the needs exceed the resources.”
The Gimenez administration cited transit cuts in President Donald Trump’s proposed budget as one reason for proposing a high-tech bus option for northern and southern corridors out of Miami instead of extending Metrorail. Esteban “Steve” Bovo, chairman of the County Commission, led the board to reject that option and pursue far pricier rail expansions on the two routes.
“The secretary is open to our plan and also open to all different technologies. And ‘all’ includes rail,” Gimenez said at the press conference. “I was heartened by her responses.”
There could be a compromise in the rail-versus-bus debate: Gimenez proposed building modernized bus stations along the southern corridor to allow group boardings, pre-ticketing and other rail-like perks for passengers along the county’s existing dedicated bus lanes next to U.S. 1. He says those stations could be converted to Metrorail depots if Bovo and other commissioners later win support for extending Metrorail at the street level.
Gimenez’s $534 million plan for rapid-transit bus routes doesn’t assume federal dollars; Bovo’s $1.5 billion plan for rail does. The divide was ignored at Tuesday’s event, which followed Chao’s private meeting with Gimenez, Bovo, Diaz-Balart and county transportation officials.
“Miami-Dade transportation leaders are visionary,” she said. “Also, they’re unified. It’s very important for any project that goes forward to have a unity of cooperation and a unity of vision.”
The Trump administration could play a key role in resolving one challenge Gimenez sees in expanding transit in Miami-Dade. A privatization advocate, Gimenez favors using a financing model that involves a for-profit company building new transit systems and operating them for decades’ worth of fees from the county.
That could be problematic for expanding Metrorail, which was largely built with federal dollars that came with rules protecting union jobs for extending the system.
Chao didn’t mention the issue, but Gimenez’s team raised the topic during the private meeting, according to a source. She did say the Trump administration may provide help to Miami-Dade beyond money.
“There are other ways the government can help,” she said. “For example, with facilitating the permitting process. Or helping with some of the deregulatory process.”
This post was updated to clarify the origins of Tuesday’s press conference. The office of U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart organized it.