Miami-Dade County

New tack on expanding Metrorail: Put the tracks on the street

A Metrorail car, about two stories above the traffic, in this 2012 file photo.
A Metrorail car, about two stories above the traffic, in this 2012 file photo. El Nuevo Herald

After almost 15 years of failed promises to expand Miami-Dade’s elevated Metrorail system north and south, local transportation planners are bringing their ambitions down to earth.

A new strategy involves saving money by using ground-level tracks for extending Metrorail north to Broward and south to Florida City, with existing cars moving onto ramps that connect with rails built on local roads and streets.

“It’s a new concept for us,” said Alice Bravo, the county’s transportation director. “You get economies of scale out of it. We have the personnel already trained on the equipment; we have the maintenance facilities.”

The approach would save Miami-Dade the expense of building concrete supports that stretch several stories tall in order to keep Metrorail’s existing 25 miles of track above the gridlock below.

Expanding Metrorail was a central promise in the successful 2002 county referendum that created Miami-Dade’s half-percent transportation sales tax, which is set to generate about $250 million next year. Despite more than a decade of new revenue, Metrorail has only grown by the two extra miles of track that in 2012 connected Miami International Airport to the system.

 

At a meeting with a transit board Tuesday, Bravo did not address the most challenging aspect of any railway expansion: securing the hundreds of millions of dollars needed to pay for it.

The most recent cost estimate by Miami-Dade for expanding Metrorail landed close to $150 million per mile. Bravo couldn’t say Tuesday how much the county could save by making the system street-level but said the expenses would be substantially less.

You get economies of scale out of it. We have the personnel already trained on the equipment, we have the maintenance facilities.

Transportation director Alice Bravo

By moving to the surface, Metrorail trains would slow down and bring their own traffic problems. Rail crossings would block vehicles from crossing the tracks when a train approached. And with 30 miles of new track — enough to double the existing system — the plan would still mean hundreds of millions of dollars to expand a rail service where fares cover only about 30 percent of the operating costs.

But the same downsides exists for light rail, a surface-level train system that relies on cars that are smaller than the kind of heavy-duty trains running on Metrorail tracks. Suburban leaders have pressed for light rail as a cheaper alternative to Metrorail, even as the latest county estimate puts light rail’s construction cost at about $80 million a mile.

After Bravo’s presentation, former Miami mayor Maurice Ferré pushed back at the notion of spending more on any kind of rail just to satisfy complaints. He said rail projects often come with broad political support and massive price tags only to deliver weak ridership levels once open. He pointed to the county’s $500 million Metrorail extension to MIA, a station that in June attracted about 1,800 riders a day. That’s less than a third of the 6,500 who boarded at the Brickell station, according to the most recent ridership report.

“I’m still for transit,” Ferré told fellow members of the Metropolitan Planning Organization, a transit board overseeing federal transportation dollars in Miami-Dade. “But we really need to be very careful. I think it’s unfair to create a system that will cost the taxpayers of 10 years from now billions of dollars to maintain and operate, and it’s not being ridden.”

The broken promises of the transit tax remain a sore spot in local politics. County leaders recently adopted a plan to expand service along six suburban corridors, though there’s no strategy yet on how to pay for the additions. Those planned expansions include the north and south routes Bravo outlined in her presentation before the Metropolitan Planning Organization’s Fiscal Priorities committee.

We really need to be very careful. I think it’s unfair to create a system that will cost the taxpayers of 10 years from now billions of dollars to maintain and operate, and it’s not being ridden.

Maurice Ferré, member of the Metropolitan Planning Organization

To the south, the ground-level Metrorail cars would move on 20 miles of new track on what used to be called the South Dade Busway but now is called the Transitway. Expanding Metrorail would bring 14 new street-level depots between the existing Dadeland South station and the end of the line at Southwest 344th Street in Florida City.

To the north, the Metrorail extension would start at the Martin Luther King Station near Northwest 79th Street and proceed up the median of Northwest 27th Avenue to the Broward County line, bringing rail to both the Miami Dolphins’ football stadium and Calder Race Course in Miami Gardens. There would be seven new stations.

Miami Gardens Mayor Oliver Gilbert said the proposal should be judged in part on when the rail would actually be delivered. “How quickly can we get it done?” he asked in an interview. “How much is it going to cost? I do think bringing mass transit up 27th Avenue is a very good idea.”

Bravo offered no details and said she could not provide cost estimates when asked by Metropolitan Planning Organization members. She said more details would be available later in the year.

Daniella Levine Cava, the Miami-Dade commissioner who heads the planning organization’s fiscal committee, said she was encouraged by the ground-level option if it made the economics of expansion more feasible.

“This really helps us move toward what had been stated as a goal of Metrorail everywhere,” she said. “Even though it wouldn’t be elevated … it has some real advantages.”

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