The last time Miami Beach desired a streetcar — in 1939 — the world was on the verge of war, Clark Gable romanced Vivien Leigh in Gone With the Wind and the city lost its 65-year-old founding father, Carl Fisher.
Now, three-quarters of a century after the last electric trolley traveled between the island and the mainland, the Beach is pushing forward with plans to create its own piece of Bay Link, a light-rail line that would efficiently transport passengers along the MacArthur Causeway across Biscayne Bay.
“It won’t be cheap, but the problem isn’t cheap,” said Miami Beach City Manager Jimmy Morales, pointing to the Beach’s constantly congested roads as a major headache for both residents and visitors of the resort city.
The Beach’s portion of Bay Link is estimated to cost about $148 million, or about 28 percent of the expected $532 million price tag for the entire project.
The first Miami-area electric trolleys came early in the 20th century, with lines created through the 1920s in Miami, Coral Gables and Miami Beach. The first trolley to Miami Beach was completed after the 1926 hurricane, according to the Miami History blog. Coral Gables trolley service ended after the 1935 hurricane and service to and from the Beach ceased in 1939.
Historian Seth Bramson, who has written extensively on the histories of South Florida’s electric railways, said the street car that ran across the MacArthur Causeway — then called the County Causeway — died along with many of the nation’s electric rail systems after the automotive industry put pressure on politicians.
“One of the worst things we ever did in this town was end the electric railway connecting Miami with Miami Beach,” he said. “That was so foolish, because had we kept it, we would’ve had a tourist attraction at the level of the San Francisco cable cars.”
Now, with traffic-choked streets every day throughout Miami-Dade, talk of a new light-rail is heating up. Bay Link was first studied in 1988 and the rail was promised to Miami-Dade voters in 2002 when they approved a new half-penny transit sales tax.
The Beach stoked the conversation in August when French rail company Alstom submitted an unsolicited bid to build a 14-mile transit system connecting downtown Miami to the Miami Beach Convention Center, along with five miles of stops through South Beach’s entertainment district.
Alstom and its partners want to finance the construction tab upfront, and then operate it on an exclusive contract that could run for 35 years. Tax dollars ultimately would fund construction and operations.
Miami Beach will take the Alstom proposal to the marketplace in January, seeking other bidders for what would be one-third of the Bay Link project.
Beach commissioners unanimously approved going out to bid while continuing an environmental study required if the city wants to qualify for state funding. To move faster with the project, the commission also decided to forgo a longer environmental analysis that could make the light-rail eligible for federal dollars but would take years to complete.
“The commission decided we were not going to go through more elaborate National Environmental Policy Act analysis to qualify for federal funding, given how long that would take without guaranteeing we would get federal funding,” Morales said.
Officials hope the expedited approach could mean breaking ground in about three years, while the rest of Bay Link gets hashed out.
On the mainland, the topic hasn’t been broached as much at Miami City Hall as it has across the bay, where traffic was a major issue for voters in this year’s Beach election.
Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine this week touted the move in an email to residents:
“Last week, the Miami Beach Commission and I authorized the city to move ahead expeditiously to develop a light rail/wireless streetcar system that will allow residents, visitors and business owners to move around our city a lot more efficiently and reduce the amount of cars on our roads,” he wrote.
Levine acknowledged that “the process going forward will not be easy and we will face many challenges along the way.”
“From environmental studies, planning and engineering, to garnering community support and adequately funding this massive endeavor, our commitment to implementing effective public transportation solutions in our city is unwavering and we will get it done,” the mayor wrote.
The Beach supports Bay Link and wants to move quickly on its own piece of it. A South Beach streetcar would likely have bearing on what happens with Bay Link: Civic and political leaders throughout Miami-Dade County have said they want one operator for the whole system.
Morales said the public bid will at least push the conversation about Bay Link forward. “We firmly believe if we move at all, if we get the process started, it jump-starts everything.”