Miami-Dade County

With transit in need, a push to end Metromover’s free rides

A Metromover car, shown in this file photo from 2011, offers free rides through downtown Miami and the Brickell neighborhood. Some leaders want fares to return to help pay for transit needs elsewhere.
A Metromover car, shown in this file photo from 2011, offers free rides through downtown Miami and the Brickell neighborhood. Some leaders want fares to return to help pay for transit needs elsewhere. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Miami-Dade would end free rides for Miami’s Metromover system under a long-shot proposal set for a vote on Tuesday.

County leaders promised to end fares on the city-wide rail system in 2002 if county voters passed a half-percent sales tax to boost funding for Miami-Dade transit projects. But with most of the promised projects still on the to-do list, some transit advocates are wondering if Miami-Dade shouldn’t scrap the Metromover pledge, too, to free up money for use elsewhere in the system.

“We need as much revenue as possible to help with our public transit system,” said Barbara Jordan, the county commissioner who helped sponsor the fare-increase measure set for a commission vote Tuesday.

With Metromover snaking through the growing condo canyons of downtown Miami and Brickell Avenue, Jordan argued the free rides come at the expense of lower-income passengers in a system where a bus ride costs two dollars.

“We’re transferring [help] from where we could give discounts to people who can’t afford it, to people who can afford it — and we’re letting them ride free,” she said.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dxj4ZaB8aso

County Mayor Carlos Gimenez opposes the fare hike, and implementing it requires support from nine of the 13 commissioners. Jordan herself told a committee last month she didn’t expect it to pass.

But the bold, controversial proposal comes as Miami-Dade’s traffic woes are getting more political attention.

Last year, an expressway board controlled by County Commission appointees implemented a series of new tolls on State Road 836, a move quickly dubbed Tollmageddon by critics. All Aboard Florida, the for-profit rail and real estate venture, wants public funds to bring Tri-Rail cars to its tracks and stations.

Gimenez last week called gridlock and transit the top problems facing Miami-Dade, and warned solutions “won’t come cheap.” The next day, he used his State of the County address to say he still wanted to build Baylink, a rail system linking Miami and Miami Beach.

County Commissioner Esteban “Steve” Bovo, who now chairs the transportation committee, plans to propose a change in state law allowing Miami-Dade to increase the six-percent hotel tax to cover transit expenses. Gimenez and commissioners backed a higher hotel tax in 2013 to fund a renovation of Sun Life Stadium, but the effort died in the Legislature.

“If we were so giddy about giving it to Dolphins stadium, why not look at it to help us fund transportation?” Bovo said.

Meanwhile, the county’s transit arm faces an ongoing budget squeeze. Gimenez last year briefly proposed a 25-cent increase on fares for buses and Metrorail, which connects Metromover to spots outside the Miami city limits. He did withhold a planned $5.9 million revenue increase for transit, saying Miami-Dade needed the savings in 2015 but would make up for the missing revenue in future years.

Miami-Dade is set to spend $620 million this year on its bus and rail lines, along with transportation services for disabled residents. About 20 percent of that comes from riders themselves, with state and federal grants absorbing another 20 percent of the costs. That leaves local taxes — including the transit tax, as well as levies on property and gasoline — to pick up almost all of the remaining 60 percent. A 2014 report said Miami-Dade’s bus and Metrorail costs amount to $4.15 per passenger, far more than the $2 fare for each system.

Miami-Dade used to charge 25 cents for each ride on Metromover, which costs about $9 million a year to operate and generates about 10 million rides, according to county statistics. The fee went away after voters approve the “half-penny” dedicated sales tax in 2002, an eight percent increase on the tax paid on most non-food purchases. The state sales tax is 6 percent, and in Miami-Dade consumers pay an additional 1 percent divided equally between transit and the county-owned Jackson hospital system.

Free Metromover fares were one of the major promises county leaders attached to the new sales tax, including expanding Metrorail to the western suburbs and on new routes north and south.

Only one signature Metrorail expansion came to pass — the new Orange Line to Miami International Airport. Other initiatives, including 24-hour bus service, free transportation for older residents and municipal shuttles, were implemented as well.

A Feb. 27 letter from the board charged with overseeing the transit tax said imposing a $1 fare for Metromover would end up costing Miami-Dade about $720,000 a year, thanks to reduced ridership and the $9 million expense of re-installing fare-collection machines. The Citizens’ Independent Transportation Trust opposes the increase. Alyce Robertson, director of the tax-funded Downtown Development Authority, said the return of Metromover fares would discourage transit in a district that needs it.

“There are a lot of people in downtown now,” she said. “What we need to do is get more people on public transportation, not less.”

Commissioner Jordan co-sponsored the Metromover item with Sally Heyman, and both of their districts sit north of Miami. At a recent hearing on the proposal, Jordan said that by keeping free rides for Metromover, the county will lose significant revenue potential from waves of new passengers in the coming years.

“We’re giving up a significant opportunity with the development that is going on in downtown Miami, the condominiums that are going up,” she said. “We’re losing out.”

IF YOU GO

Miami-Dade County Commission Meeting

Tuesday, March 3, 9:30 a.m.

Stephen P. Clark Government Center

111 NW First St., Miami 33128

Watch: On cable on Ch. 76, except for Ch. 99 on AT&T U-verse; or online at miamidade.gov

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