Miami-Dade County

Running Miami-Dade’s dream rail system could cost $1 million a day, study says

Jeremiah and Tracey Pringle and Alvin Crosby board a bus at the MLK Metrorail stop.
Jeremiah and Tracey Pringle and Alvin Crosby board a bus at the MLK Metrorail stop. el Nuevo Herald

If building a massive expansion of Miami-Dade’s rail system sounds costly, try running it.

A new study puts the operations and maintenance tab of a fully expanded county rail system at about $1 million a day, a network that would offer commuters 82 miles of new track. The operating cost is more than triple what Miami-Dade currently pays to run the 22-mile Metrorail system.

Forecasts by AECOM, a state and county consultant, outlines a daunting gap between Miami-Dade’s already cash-strapped transit budget and the one needed to support the county’s $6 billion “SMART” plan for expanding rapid transit further into the suburbs.

The divide is the latest reminder that the plan promising a new era in rapid transit for Miami-Dade hasn’t laid out how the county could afford the plan unveiled last year to bring new train service from Florida City north to Broward County, and from South Beach west to Kendall.

County officials say the funding strategy will be revealed soon. They also caution that numbers from a state consultant represent just a first pass at cost estimates, and that an analysis by the county’s Transportation Department sees expenses as much lower — just a little more than $300,000 a day. Alice Bravo, the county’s transportation director, said that by focusing on extending Metrorail and using existing equipment and maintenance facilities, Miami-Dade can produce the historic rail expansion for less than what some experts expect.

“Based on what other cities are doing,” she said, “we can do this.”

For Jeremiah and Tracey Pringle, the debate could mean a daily difference in how they get to and from Miami Gardens. The couple were waiting for a northbound county bus on a recent afternoon at Northwest 27th Avenue, a thoroughfare that could get a 10-mile extension of Metrorail under the SMART plan.

“It takes a good 35 minutes to get home,” said Jeremiah Pringle, 33, a student at a local art institute. “It will put a person to sleep taking a bus from Miami to Miami Gardens.”

Based on what other cities are doing, we can do this.

Miami-Dade transit chief Alice Bravo

The gap between the county’s numbers and estimates in a November analysis by AECOM highlight the stakes in determining just how much the planned rail lines would cost to build and operate. While Bravo’s estimates put construction costs at about $3.5 billion, the 200-page AECOM report projects that a similar rail system could cost more than $6 billion to build.

Bravo also sees operating costs for the SMART system coming in somewhere around $115 million a year, instead of the nearly $370 million budget the AECOM study said might be required for the new and existing rail system. Metrorail costs roughly $95 million a year to run, according to AECOM’s analysis of costs.

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Even at the low end, the cost estimates for the SMART plan spotlight the political challenges ahead as elected leaders prepare to shift from the popular promises of the expansion blueprint to the financial nuts-and-bolts of funding it.

The most talked-about option involves asking voters to increase a current half-percent sales tax to a full one percent, a measure Miami-Dade’s electorate rejected in 1999 before agreeing to the smaller tax three years later. There’s also a push to create new transit tax zones around expanded rail routes. Those would divert tax revenue from higher land values for transit projects, but sap dollars that would otherwise go to the county’s general budget, possibly increasing pressure to boost property-tax rates.

With polls showing traffic as a top concern among voters and county leaders promising action on congestion, the SMART costs set up a political test for how much the public might sacrifice to fund miles of new rail.

Fixing our transportation challenges is a promise that we have made to residents time and again. It’s a promise we intend to keep.

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez

“The cost can be handled,” said Maurice Ferré, the former Miami mayor who sits on a countywide transportation board, “if people are willing to pay the taxes for it.”

Miami-Dade’s entire transit system costs about $600 million a year, with more than 40 percent of the money needed to sustain a bus network of 700 vehicles, according to county budget documents. Fare revenue from Metrorail and buses covers less than 20 percent of expenses, leaving tax dollars to fill in most of the gaps. In 2017, about half of the nearly $250 million forecast from the transportation sales tax is budgeted to subsidize operations of the county’s transit system.

The transportation tax has been a rallying cry for supporters of the SMART plan, including Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez. He won re-election last year on a campaign that featured the SMART plan in television campaign ads. He has pledged to sharply reduce use of the tax as an operating subsidy in order to help fund the SMART plan, though it only dipped $1 million to $129 million in his 2017 budget.

Miami-Dade is counting on Washington to pick up a sizable chunk of the SMART plan’s construction costs. Earlier this month, the outgoing Obama administration announced $1.6 billion in federal grants and loans for a $2.5 billion extension of the Los Angeles subway, and Washington funded half of a $2.2 billion expansion of rail in Denver that opened last year.

 
 

But there’s little chance of securing federal transportation grants for the bulk of the project, according to a Miami Republican congressman who chairs a key House committee on transit issues.

“Obviously, you can’t fund the whole thing at once,” said Mario Diaz-Balart, chairman of the appropriations subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development. “I am anxious to be helpful. But the projects have to be real.”

His comments touch on the most sensitive elements of the SMART plan: whether some corridors will be shelved once county officials reconcile the costs with a realistic revenue forecast. Washington is likely to play a key role in that, given the certainty from Diaz-Balart and others that securing federal funds for even one major corridor would be considered a huge win for Miami-Dade.

Backers of the SMART plan have already talked of certain corridors going first in the implementation but haven’t specified just how long a wait the other ones might face before they moved to the front of the line. The SMART Plan’s corridors mostly match up to a rail-expansion blueprint promised voters in 2002, though in 14 years Metrorail has only been extended about three miles, to Miami International Airport.

Since Miami-Dade would use the existing 20-mile busway in South Dade for an extension of Metrorail, that corridor is widely assumed to hold the first slot in the county’s funding strategy, since it requires no land acquisition. It’s not clear whether Miami-Dade plans to pursue federal funding for all six corridors at once and let Washington pick winners and losers, or select a limited amount of routes considered most likely to beat out other municipalities’ best transit projects.

The cost can be handled, if people are willing to pay the taxes for it

Maurice Ferré, former Miami mayor and member of the Metropolitan Planning Organization

Diaz-Balart said Miami-Dade’s local leaders must be ready for the challenge advancing the most viable line or lines while forcing other areas of the county to wait for projects of their own. “You can’t allow politics to get in the way,” he said.

The SMART plan’s first political test may be coming soon. In his annual State of the County address on Wednesday, Gimenez said “we expect to move forward with one or more of these corridors very, very soon.”

“Fixing our transportation challenges is a promise that we have made to residents time and again,” he said. “It’s a promise we intend to keep.”

Tonia Harris leaves her home in Perrine at 6 a.m. to get to work in downtown Miami. She gets a ride to the Busway from her husband, boards a bus that takes her to the Dadeland South Station, then boards a train to the Government Center. She then w

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