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Miami Beach may hire Spanish company to study possibility of new transit system

Nearly a decade after a project to connect Miami Beach and the mainland by light-rail fizzled, city leaders may hire a state-owned Spanish railway company to study a new option to link the tourist hub of South Beach to Miami.

Miami Beach public works staff met this month a second time with representatives of FEVE, which runs a 777-mile rail system in Spain, to talk about an electric streetcar free of overhead wires that the company runs in the historic city of Seville.

José González, transportation manager for Miami Beach, said a Dec. 14 meeting focused on finalizing a proposal for a “pre-feasibility study” for bringing the Seville streetcar — which has no overhead lines, or catenaries — to South Beach. FEVE submitted a draft proposal for the study last month after reviewing 2004 plans for the stalled Bay Link system, which would have connected South Beach to downtown Miami via light rail. The two sides first met in October.

“This relationship with FEVE is more than anything in the context of seeing if the technology FEVE is currently operating in Seville — a catenary-free streetcar technology — if that’s implementable, feasible, buildable here in the United States and obviously what would that cost,” González said.

Public Works Director Fred Beckmann stressed that talks with FEVE remain preliminary. But he said FEVE’s wireless system, which the city learned about through the company’s ongoing relationship with Miami-Dade’s Metropolitan Planning Organization, may prove more attractive than the Bay Link proposal.

“The moment we found a system that uses streetcars and a non-catenary system that only charges at stations, that’s what piqued our interests,” he said.

If commissioners approve of a pre-feasibility study, FEVE would:

The next step is for FEVE to submit a cost estimate for the study, which commissioners are scheduled to consider during a Jan. 24 finance meeting in the third-floor training room at 1755 Meridian Ave. Once that happens, González said city officials can consider whether to seek competitive bids for the study or to ask FEVE to partner with another contractor that already has been approved by the city for transportation consulting work.

Whether discussions are a dead-end, or the beginning of the next major mass transit debate in Miami Beach, remains to be seen.

But a Dec. 11 memo about FEVE has generated discussion in the online real estate and development forum exMiami. And talks with FEVE are a result of renewed interest in transit among elected officials, most of whom were not in office in 2004 when 55 percent of voters favored a $488 million Bay Link plan.

The project, which is now unfunded, was divisive in the community and had the narrow support of the commission at the time. It died largely because of funding woes that arose after voters in 2002 approved a half-cent sales tax increase, which never raised enough money to fund the myriad mass transit projects promised by county officials.

The only holdover on the Miami Beach City Commission from eight years ago is Mayor Matti Herrera Bower. Bower, at the time a commissioner, was against Bay Link. She is now the city’s representative on the Miami-Dade County transportation board, the Metropolitan Planning Organization, which coordinates transit projects and early this year voted to have FEVE review new transit opportunities in the county.

Bower said the often gridlocked city clearly needs a successful mass transit system, but one that connects Miami Beach’s north, middle and south regions together, as well as with Miami-Dade County’s mass transit systems. She said the Bay Link track, which is what FEVE is studying for its system, didn’t accomplish that.

“I’m open to suggestions,” she said. “But in my view we need to connect the whole Beach.”