Since the election-year launch of the Miami-Dade’s “SMART” transit plan, the effort to jumpstart six stalled rail lines across the county has sparked public optimism and warm words from elected officials. Then, on Tuesday, the County Commission tried to hire engineering firms to map out how to turn the plan into reality.
“I don’t know if we even have a plan,” said Commissioner Joe Martinez, who objected to the contract award. “We have six corridors.”
It was an early note of dissension in a discussion that revealed both underlying skepticism about the political battles ahead involving the SMART plan, and the leeriness about spending the millions of dollars needed just to get the multibillion-dollar effort started. After a commission committee endorsed doubling the proposed $11 million fee for a politically connected firm, the full 13-member board backed off after a last-minute objection from Mayor Carlos Gimenez.
“I like a lower number,” Gimenez said, after his transit director, Alice Bravo, had praised the flexibility of the $22 million cap on the contract for Parsons Brinckerhoff. “We also don’t want to send the signal we’re spending all this money on studies.”
Commissioners approved the $11 million agreement with Parsons, along with two other $11 million contracts for AECOM and Parsons Transportation, rival firms that also competed for the SMART work. In all, the $33 million bill, to be paid from the county’s half-percent transit sales tax, represents the most money Miami-Dade has formally attached to the SMART blueprint, which Gimenez unveiled last April.
The plan sought to soften growing backlash over broken transit promises tied to the half-percent sales tax, which voters approved in a 2002 referendum after a campaign touting an historic rail expansion countywide. Fifteen years later, Metrorail has grown less than three miles, connecting Earlington Heights with Miami International Airport.
The SMART plan, endorsed by a string of county and municipal panels, calls for new studies on the costs and viability of extending rail and other high-speed transit options along the six corridors that were already part of the original 2002 vision. The state is paying for studies on three of the corridors and with Tuesday’s vote, the commission agreed to pay for the other three.
A recent consultant’s report estimated that bringing about 70 miles of new rail to the six corridors would cost about $6 billion to build, and Miami-Dade sees federal funding as the only hope of implementing the plan.
With an historic infrastructure expenditure on the table, the SMART Plan also offers potential windfalls for contractors, consultants and the lobbyists they employ.
The original Parsons Brinckerhoff contract highlighted the opportunity: To pursue the Miami-Dade deal, the global engineering company hired a Miami Beach lobbying firm, LSN Partners, that was central to Gimenez’s reelection campaigns. One partner, Jesse Manzano-Plaza, was Gimenez’s campaign manager in 2016 and another, Marcelo Llorente, his campaign chairman in 2012.
Ralph Garcia-Toledo, Gimenez’s finance chairman, is listed as a Parsons Brinckerhoff subcontractor on the Miami-Dade agreement. LSN also is a reliable source of campaign funds for the commission’s 13 members. The arrangement was the subject of a scathing column Tuesday on the Political Cortadito blog, authored by Gimenez critic Elaine De Valle.
Miami-Dade originally advertised the contract at $22 million at the start of 2016, but Bravo reduced the requested amount to $11 million when she presented the agreement to a commission committee in early March. When LSN partner Alex Heckler, a top fundraiser in county races, rose to ask that commissioners cap the contract at the original $22 million, the committee agreed.
When Bravo addressed commissioners Tuesday, she didn’t object to the $22 million fee. When pressed by Martinez if she supported the original $11 million fee, Bravo responded: “I support it, like this as well, because it just provides additional flexibility.”
The mayor was not in the chambers at the time. His administration’s message changed later in the discussion, when Deputy Mayor Ed Marquez announced that Gimenez backed the $11 million fee. The mayor eventually retook his seat on the dais to endorse the added “control” that came with the $11 million cap on the five-year engineering contract.
Of the six corridors, Florida is paying for studies in Kendall, heading north of Miami up 27th Avenue, and the existing tracks owned by the Brightline private railway on the northeast side of Miami-Dade. The state also is funding half of the cost to study a route connecting Miami and South Beach.
With Tuesday’s vote, Miami-Dade is paying for SMART Plan studies in South Dade, an east-west route along SR 836 and the other half of the Miami-to-South Beach route.
While the Strategic Miami Area Rapid Transit Plan puts each corridor on equal footing, transit advocates have been bracing for the moment when funding realities force Miami-Dade to pick which corridors need to wait years — or a generation — to receive the dollars needed to begin construction.
Commissioner Barbara Jordan — whose district includes the 27th Avenue corridor — said Miami-Dade’s choice of where to spend its money hinted at a pecking order for the corridors.
“It looks like we have made a priority of putting local county dollars into these three corridors,” Jordan said. “It could give the impression that there’s a push for these three projects.” Jordan also alluded to the fact that the 27th Avenue corridor was already the subject of a 2007 rail study, something other routes lacked.
“I know some of the other corridors are much further ahead,” she said. “Now, if that flips, we’re going to have to flip the community upside down.”
This post was updated to correct the cost estimate for the SMART Plan from an AECOM consultant study, and to correct Miami-Dade’s share of the cost for a transit study of a route connecting Miami to South Beach. Florida is paying for half the cost, transit chief Alice Bravo said.