At a time when many South Florida residents have lost confidence in mass transit, a little-known public transportation system is drawing renewed interest.
Shuttle bus or circulator routes that carried more than eight million passengers last year in 27 municipalities are the services riders and public officials alike praise as successful transit programs.
Last month, for example, the Miami city commission approved expansion of its bus shuttle system, known as a trolley service, into Wynwood, Coconut Grove and other neighborhoods.
“It’s been so successful that we are deciding to double the size of the program,” said Miami Commissioner Francis Suarez, a key South Florida transit proponent. “We have 360,000 riders a month, well beyond our initial modeling.”
South Florida commuters are reeling from a recent expressway toll increase and a realization that the area’s regular train and bus services cannot be expanded quickly because of a lack of funds.
But riders in municipalities that operate trolleys or shuttle buses say they find those services more than adequate for their needs.
“The trolleys are simply wonderful,” said Amalia Sandoval, a Venezuelan who lives in Coral Gables and rides the trolley virtually every day.
She was interviewed as she got off the Coral Gables trolley at a Publix supermarket near Ponce de León and Flagler Street.
“I come to the supermarket,” she said. “I take my granddaughter to school. Then I go home. The service is on time and the drivers are very polite. I have a car but I’d rather take the trolley because my granddaughter just loves it.”
Other riders simply like the fact that most trolley services are free.
“It gives people who don’t have fare for the bus a way to travel, because it’s free,” said Geney Perez.
She was interviewed as she walked near a Miami trolley stop at the Brickell Metrorail and Metromover station where the Miami trolley feeds county transit.
These comments contrast with the many complaints regularly voiced by riders on county transit buses. In a story published Nov. 5, the Miami Herald found that the majority of the 27,000 complaints analyzed since the start of 2014 through July were about buses not arriving as expected.
But of the dozen trolley or shuttle bus riders recently interviewed in person and on the phone, 11 were happy with the service. Only one complained about late service.
The municipal shuttle or trolley services blossomed as a result of the half-penny tax for transportation approved by Miami-Dade County voters in 2002.
As part of the deal, officials agreed to share 20 percent of revenue from half-penny tax collections with municipalities and those receiving funds have used them for transit services including trolleys.
As of now, 27 municipalities are served by circulators. Most prominent among them: Coral Gables, Miami, Miami Beach and Hialeah.
Miami, for example, has built on its trolley service by recently creating a transportation trust fund to ensure the service never lacks operational funds.
Suárez, the Miami commissioner, led the fight for the trust fund.
“One of the components of that trust fund is the preservation of the trolley program,” Suárez said. “We are now dedicating a quarter percentage of our budget in a segregated account to ensure that our trolley never goes bankrupt. Because of the expansion, the [half-penny tax] money is going to run out.”
The expansion, said Suárez, will bring more routes.
“Now we are going to have three additional lines,” said Suárez. “One is Wynwood. One in Coconut Grove and one in Flagler-Eighth Street.”
The Flagler-Eighth Street route, he said, will go west on Flagler from downtown, then turn onto 37th Avenue, and travel east on Eighth Street.
“It’ll be a circulator from downtown to 37th Avenue, which cuts the city pretty much in half east-west,” he said. “The last line we have to do is connecting the north and the west of the city, the upper east side and west Flagami.”
Most services feature trolleys that resemble old-style streetcars.
Hialeah, for its part, has created a more formal bus service because it charges fares similar to those for Metrobus operated by Miami-Dade Transit.
Hialeah Transit System buses, though a bit smaller, resemble Metrobuses. Hialeah has two routes, Flamingo and Marlin.
Two riders interviewed at a bus stop on Palm Avenue differed in their views of the service.
“It’s magnificent,” said María Díaz Barceló, a Hialeah resident who takes the Marlin route bus to Walmart. “It’s very convenient and reliable.”
But another rider, Virginia Pelegrín, said the Hialeah bus was not frequent.
“I’ve had to wait a long time for it,” she said. “In Europe, transport there is excellent. Every 10 or 12 minutes you get a bus coming by. Here, everything is geared for the convenience of those who drive cars.”
Alfonso Chardy: 305-376-3435, @AlfonsoChardy