Miami-Dade County

Miami-Dade’s light-rail tab could be $6 billion. Solution: Extend Metrorail down to the street

A Metrorail car leaves downtown Miami’s Government Center station elevated tracks. They would move to street level under a plan to expand rail countywide.
A Metrorail car leaves downtown Miami’s Government Center station elevated tracks. They would move to street level under a plan to expand rail countywide. El Nuevo Herald

Bringing light rail to Miami-Dade’s suburbs could top $6 billion, a price tag so high that transportation planners say it probably makes more financial sense just to expand the existing Metrorail system on street-level tracks.

The emerging strategy would revive a core element of the county’s transit plans by pursuing a major expansion of the 1984 Metrorail system in multiple directions. While long considered too costly, expanding Metrorail could be significantly cheaper than the more modern option of light-rail once elevated tracks are removed from the equation, transit officials said.

“It’s more cost-effective to use that same technology than to introduce something totally new,” said Alice Bravo, the county’s transportation director. “It’s starting to make more sense.”

Metrorail is not the only aging rail system to enjoy a central role in the latest blueprint for expanding mass transit in Miami-Dade. Instead of building a new light-rail system across the MacArthur Causeway to Miami Beach, Bravo said the new thinking involves extending the county-owned Metromover system across the bridge to create a long-sought “Baylink” rail between downtown and South Beach.

With smaller cars and slower speeds, light-rail systems can navigate the sharp turns and other maneuvers required for navigating through city streets. Heavy-rail systems like Metrorail use larger cars to carry more people, but generally require long stretches of straight track. Bravo said that requirement meshes well with planned transit routes along 27th Avenue to the north and U.S. 1 to the south, with western corridors being considered for a mix of Metrorail and possibly a small light-rail system in Kendall.

By expanding current rail systems, Miami-Dade could add about 30 miles of track for less than $4 billion, according to the latest estimate provided by Bravo and Aileen Bouclé, director of the Metropolitan Planning Organization.

It’s more cost-effective to use that same technology than to introduce something totally new.

Alice Bravo, Miami-Dade transportation director

That’s still a daunting price: In the 14 years since voters approved a half-percent sales tax, Miami-Dade has managed to borrow only $1.5 billion off of that revenue source. And, using 2016 dollars, the entire 25-mile Metrorail system cost about $2.8 billion to build.

But with transportation leaders seeing street-level Metrorail tracks as a new way to bring down expansion costs, the option appears to be at the heart of a pending plan on how to bring rail to six corridors throughout Miami-Dade. Known as the “SMART Plan,” the effort mostly exists as a wish list of expanded transit from Miami Beach to Kendall, and the Broward County line to Homestead.

Bouclé said initial estimates of building a new light-rail system to serve most of the corridors showed a cost range of between $5.5 billion and $6.5 billion. She said the MPO, a countywide transportation board, is refining cost estimates for a street-level Metrorail expansion by looking at a similar system in Los Angeles.

If you have a billion dollars, what else can you do with that money?

Transportation consultant Bob Poole

While much cheaper than the current elevated system of Metrorail tracks, a street-level rail system brings a major drawback: cars having to wait for trains to pass. But that would be the case with a new light-rail system, too. And by extending the current Metrorail system, passengers wouldn’t be forced to switch trains when traveling from existing stations to ones built in an expansion.

While light-rail systems are cheaper to build from scratch, extending a heavy-rail system is most likely going to be the cheaper option, said Steve Schlickman, a transit consultant in Chicago.

While much cheaper than the current elevated system of Metrorail tracks, a street-level rail system brings a major drawback: cars having to wait for trains to pass. But that would be the case with a new light-rail system, too. And by extending the current Metrorail system, passengers wouldn’t be forced to switch trains when traveling from existing stations to ones built in an expansion.

“If you introduce a new rail technology, that’s a whole new maintenance regime,” said Schlickman, the former director of the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Urban Transportation Center. “It also means a ‘second ride’ for many people. I think it’s very important to keep things consistent.”

But if adding 30 miles of rail costs $3.5 billion, that amounts to more than $100 million per mile. While Miami-Dade leaders are counting on federal and state grants to pay for as much as 75 percent of the tab, even a reduced price tag will test the popularity of rail projects when the money could be spent on far cheaper transit options, like rapid bus lines.

“The question you have to ask is: What’s the bang for the buck?” said Bob Poole, a Plantation-based consultant who works for the Reason Public Policy Institute. “If you have a billion dollars, what else can you do with that money?”

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