Miami’s snazzy new trolleys, painted to look like quaint street cars and designed to draw riders with free public transportation, hit all the hot spots: Mary Brickell Village and AmericanAirlines Arena, the Adrienne Arsht Center, Midtown and downtown Coral Gables. There’s even a route to Miami’s sprawling health district near Jackson Memorial.
But where the trolleys do not venture is the West Grove, a largely black neighborhood founded over a century ago by Bahamian laborers who helped build the city.
In response to citizen complaints, federal transit officials are taking a closer look at how Miami-Dade County and local cities are spending tens of millions of federal dollars doled out to help finance the trolleys and a slew of other transportation projects. The money, part of the massive $787 billion stimulus package pushed by President Barack Obama, was approved by Congress in 2009 to boost the country’s depressed economy.
At issue is whether the local projects fail to serve poor and minority communities, potentially violating the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.
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The inquiry is part of an expanding probe that began last fall, when federal transit officials found that Miami, Coral Gables and Miami-Dade mishandled a plan to move a trolley maintenance garage from Coral Gables to the West Grove. The plan was approved without sufficient input from West Grove residents, as required by the civil rights law, federal officials said.
Miami-Dade Transit — already under scrutiny for poor accounting — now must also review projects financed with money it passed to at least 18 cities under a $69 million grant from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) to ensure that residents’ civil rights haven’t been violated. County officials are also meeting monthly with the Federal Transit Administration and reviewing their policies for following the civil rights guidelines.
Federal officials also want to make sure Miami’s trolley service does not create “disparate impacts on the basis of race, color or national origin,” according to a Dec. 26 letter to Ralf Brookes, an attorney representing residents.
“It’s really about public participation. You can’t just take federal money and not let the community in,” explained Andrew Dickman, an attorney and urban planner, who is also chairman of the Collier County Environmental Advisory Council. “A foundation for cities and counties is due process. So if they don’t have due process, that’s a problem.”
This latest investigation spun out of the bitter controversy over the construction of a maintenance garage for Coral Gables’ trolleys in the 3300 block of Douglas Road, that pitted West Grove residents against Miami, Coral Gables and developer Henry Torres.
In a deal with Torres, Coral Gables agreed to exchange land where its existing garage sits next to swanky Merrick Park so Torres could build luxury high-rise condos. Torres and his company, Astor Development, then found land for a new garage in Miami’s West Grove. After Miami planning officials signed off on it — without a public hearing — residents became incensed. Initially they said they’d be willing to live with the garage if it included some neighborhood benefits, like retail space and a local trolley stop. But Coral Gables refused.
So in April, Clarice Cooper, who lives across from the garage, filed a civil rights complaint with federal transit officials. In December, she amended her complaint to include Miami’s trolley service.
“There has to be some accountability. You’re talking about taking money from the taxpayers of this country,” said Cooper, whose neighborhood must pay a fare for a bus that circles between the Douglas Road and Coconut Grove Metrorail stations. “You have this trolley going into Coral Gables, so you have Coral Gables (residents) able to travel into downtown Miami and back home without having to spend a penny.”
In 2009 when Miami introduced the idea of a network of interconnecting trolleys, it hoped to draw riders from the city’s growing cultural scene, flourishing financial district and increasingly populated downtown.
“The trolleys would serve as a gateway service for choice riders who might not otherwise utilize public transportation, introducing these riders to the benefits of transit as a primary transportation mode,” the city’s transportation director, Jose Gonzalez, said in 2009.
Three years later, the first route was unveiled to get baseball fans to the new Marlins stadium in Little Havana. Today, the city has six more routes, including one through the financial district along Brickell, in the Jackson/UM health district and in the Omni area. Routes also run from downtown south to Vizcaya and north to hip Wynwood and Midtown. In September, the city unveiled its seventh and final route, connecting to a Coral Gables loop that Coral Gables launched in 2004.
Miami purchased 19 trolleys for the routes with its $3.9 million share of MDT’s federal stimulus money.
This is not the first time black residents have questioned the trolley routes. In 2006, Cooper’s mother, Leona, asked Coral Gables to extend its loop, which traveled up and down Ponce de Leon Boulevard from the Douglas Road Metrorail station near Dixie Highway to Southwest Eighth Street, south to her Golden Gate neighborhood. Over the years, Leona Cooper has repeatedly fought to improve and protect her triangle-shaped enclave that Coral Gables founder George Merrick sliced from the West Grove in the 1920s when he bought and designed it for black Bahamians who helped him, and his father before him, build Coral Gables.
Instead Coral Gables extended the route north to Flagler Street, using the federal stimulus money, along with city and state funds, to pay for it.
While Miami’s trolley system does not meet “the size threshold for triggering” a large-scale study, federal officials said in the Dec. 26 letter that the city still must ensure that the program does not have a disparate impact on minorities.
Civil rights violations?
As part of the Civil Rights Act created in 1964, Title VI prohibits discrimination based on race, color or national origin and applies to every federal dollar spent. It has been interpreted in part by the history that preceded it, explained Florida International University law professor Howard Wasserman.
“Interstates got built in the 1950s, which all predate the 1964 Civil Rights Act, where you had exactly this sort of disparate impact in terms of where they built the highways. This was designed to remedy that, or at least make the state or local and county government think about it,” said Wasserman, who teaches civil rights litigation. “I lived in Chicago for a long time and highways were built historically through black neighborhoods. They chose where they went very intentionally.”
“When non-majority minority communities are disparately impacted,” he explained “one of the things we want to do in addition to recognizing the impact is to get a lot of community involvement.”
But when federal officials questioned Miami staff in August about the trolley garage, it “became apparent that none of the relevant city staff appeared to be aware’’ of the law’s requirements and the city had no compliance plan, FTA officials noted in their October findings. They also found that Coral Gables also lacked the program.
That discovery led federal officials to widen their focus and take a closer look at how the county handled the total $69 million grant, for which it has received a 5 percent cut to administer.
“To prevent a similar situation from arising in the future,” officials wrote in a follow-up letter in December, MDT must conduct a survey of the 18 municipalities that received grant money to determine whether they should have conducted public outreach and studies for projects. Federal officials also ordered Miami and Coral Gables to look at their entire transportation system and provide information on services, including availability and vehicle assignment.
Since first receiving the federal money in November last year, Miami has worked to comply, said Assistant City Manager Alice Bravo. The city believed its primary responsibility under Title VI was to provide a way for residents to file complaints, which it has posted on its trolley web site. But because they have not changed the trolley routes, and have no plans to change them, Bravo said the city believes it is not required to perform an equity analysis on its routes.
“But we’ll await the final determination from the FTA,” she said. “We’ve been cooperating with MDT every step of the way and we intend to live up to our responsibilities.”
Coral Gables, however, does dispute the FTA findings on the trolley garage, said city attorney Craig Leen.
“I think the federal government is taking a very expansive view that because you have a trolley housed in a building, then the building is (required to follow) Title VI. I have not heard of such a broad reach.”
Leen also pointed out that guidelines specifically calling for public outreach and the equity study were not adopted until October 2012, after the city struck its deal with Torres.
“There was nothing to tell us to do this,” he said.
Under its previous guidelines issued in 2007, federal officials said governments that receive federal money should look at “community disruption and environmental justice.” They should also “seek out and consider viewpoints of minority, low-income ... populations in the course of conducting public outreach.” And a checklist submitted to federal officials by the county indicated that if the trolley were housed in a new facility, it would comply.
Rules in dispute
But Attorney Stephen J. Helfman, who represents Coral Gables, argued those rules applied to a different kind of study.
“This is one of the fundamental objections the City has had with the FTA from the outset. They are blindly insistent upon applying rules adopted in 2012 to a siting process conducted in 2010,” he wrote in an email. “The rules/guidelines that the FTA claims the City has violated did not even exist until two years after the site was selected by Astor.”
But FTA officials insisted there is nothing new about including the public in transportation decisions.
“The requirement for public outreach under Title VI is not new; it has been in place since at least 1988,” a spokeswoman said in an email.
Governments receiving federal money, she said, have had “to develop a public participation strategy that offered ‘early and continuous opportunities for the public to be involved in the identification of social, economic, and environmental impacts of proposed transportation decisions.’ ”
MDT said it did not conduct any outreach or studies for any of the projects funded by the $69 million grant because it did not believe any required it.
But at least one more project, a bus maintenance lot in Palmetto Bay, meets the definition for the kind of transportation facility described in guidelines. Furthermore, the code says public outreach and equity studies should be done during planning stages to “ensure the location is selected” in a way that does not discriminate.
MDT now says it is “seeking clarification from the FTA as to whether the Village of Palmetto Bay project, and other similar projects, would require a Title VI analysis,” Miami-Dade Transit spokeswoman Karla Damian wrote in an email. “As stated before, the requested Title VI analysis for the city of Coral Gables trolley maintenance facility is a unique situation. MDT is not aware of any previous instances similar to this.”
Damian did not respond to requests for an interview with county transportation officials.
In hindsight, Dickman, the planner and land use attorney, said conducting public outreach when it was required, during the planning stage, could have prevented much of the controversy over the trolley garage, which led to protests and two lawsuits.
“The sad part is the remedy being prescribed is just community outreach after the fact,” he wrote in an email, pointing out that following the civil rights law might have provided residents with the kind of information they needed to successfully fight the garage.
After failing to convince the city to halt construction of the garage, West Grove residents sued Miami, arguing that its approval, posted online, was too difficult to discover and too costly to appeal. But a judge found the notice was adequate. And because residents did follow the city’s appeal process, he said they had no standing to sue in court.
Coral Gables then sued the developer, taking up the residents’ claim that the garage also violates Miami’s zoning code and therefore does not meet the terms of its contract for the land swap. Residents asked to join the lawsuit, but a judge refused. They asked again after the Title VI violations came to light, pointing out that Astor had been allowed to join the city of Miami when residents sued Miami.
But Greenberg Traurig attorney Timothy Kolaya, representing Astor, argued that the case was a simple contract dispute between the developer and Coral Gables. He called the Title VI findings a “red herring” and argued that the residents were “attempting, once again, to pry their way into the middle of this case.” On Monday, Judge John Thornton canceled a hearing and rejected the residents’ motion.
Anthony Alfieri, the University of Miami law professor whose Center for Ethics & Public Service helped recruit a team of attorneys to represent residents for free, called the ruling “inexplicable, procedurally unfair, and substantively unjust, especially in light of the FTA’s findings of Title VI regulatory noncompliance by both municipalities and the county.
“It slams the courthouse door on the rights of our community’s poor black citizens,” he said.
Despite its objections to the findings, Coral Gables is taking steps to comply with federal officials, Leen said. It has hired an Orlando consultant to conduct a study into the impact the garage will have. At its first meeting with federal officials this week, the group mapped out a plan, he said.
“Our goal here is not to try to be in an argument with the FTA,” he said. “Our goal is to get this matter resolved in a way that’s satisfactory to everybody.”