Miami-Dade’s mayor admits he’s a recent convert to the cause: pushing Miami to abandon dreams of expanding Metrorail in favor of a new generation of high-tech buses that will make commuters rethink the value of tracks and trains.
Mayor Carlos Gimenez made Metrorail a prominent part of his reelection campaign last year, but on Wednesday he ramped up a new transit crusade: winning support for Chinese-made “trackless trains” running on dedicated lanes north and south of Miami.
“I believe we are on the cusp of unbelievable transformation, driven by new technology that will place us ahead of other cities because we are in the midst of creating a transportation infrastructure with those new technologies in mind,” Gimenez told the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce before showing a video about high-tech buses as an affordable alternative to rail. “It’s a solution we can implement now. Not one that will take decades to complete.”
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He chose Miami-Dade’s largest business group to debut the video pitch for the Chinese-made vehicle, an electric bus with interlocking cars capable of holding about 300 people and designed for platform-level entry, group boarding and other rail-like perks. They use rubber tires that run on pavement, putting them in the category of rapid-transit buses that serve as a nimbler and cheaper alternative to the kind of traditional rail system that other Miami-Dade leaders want.
“So far, train is the option most people are advocating for,” said Daniella Levine Cava, the county commissioner whose district includes parts of the south corridor that would be the first to get the Chinese vehicles under Gimenez’s plan. “Not only because they prefer the idea of the train, but also because it would be a logical extension and continuation of the Metrorail. Having a one-seat ride is something we’ve all been told helps us bring [new] riders into the system.”
Miami-Dade commissioners in September brushed aside Gimenez’s recommendation for a nearly $600 million system of rapid-transit buses running where Metrorail ends north and south of Miami. Much of the money would go to build air-conditioned stations, and a mix of overpasses and dedicated lanes to let the vehicles avoid automobile traffic. Instead of Gimenez’s plan, commissioners endorsed expanding Metrorail north and south but stopped short of identifying the dollars for a tab pegged at roughly $1.5 billion.
Gimenez sees hope for a compromise: spend the money on building modern bus depots in the south, where Miami-Dade already has dedicated lanes for buses, and on creating new rapid-transit lanes to the north. That would allow the county to deploy the modern vehicles Gimenez wants but also convert the infrastructure to rail if Miami-Dade finds the money.
Gimenez said he plans to travel to China to visit the government-owned manufacturer of the rapid-transit bus, a company known as CRRC. For his Chamber presentation, the county’s communications office used its own narration over footage provided by CRRC, which debuted its “trackless train” this summer. Promotional images show a driver at the helm, but the company says the vehicles will be guided by autonomous technology allowing it to “follow” painted lines.
The Chinese-made buses surfaced in the local transit debate in July, when Gimenez released a memo outlining why Miami-Dade can’t afford to expand rail beyond a new Tri-Rail line that could run on Brightline’s privately owned tracks between Miami and Palm Beach.
Gimenez filmed a campaign commercial on a Metrorail car last year, and the ad touted “More Rail Lines” as he pitched transit plans. A year later, Gimenez recommended against expanding Metrorail in favor of rapid-transit buses, citing the high cost of rail and the likelihood that autonomous vehicles will make trains obsolete with a new generation of ultra-cheap and convenient commuting options.
“When we started talking about the SMART plan, I was all aboard — excuse the pun — with trains,” Gimenez told the Chamber audience at the Hilton Miami Downtown. “But as I became better educated about the future — and also the reality of the cost of trains —we were looking for different options.”