Miami-Dade County

Miami-Dade considering private operator for Metromover

An automated Metromover car leaves Third Street Station toward Brickell.
An automated Metromover car leaves Third Street Station toward Brickell. MIAMI HERALD ARCHIVES

Facing a budget squeeze over transit services, Miami-Dade County wants to turn over its Metromover system to a private operator in a bid to save money on an automated network that currently employs about 70 county workers.

A draft proposal that’s been sent to union officials lays out a detailed scope of work a future contractor would perform. That includes running the control center that sends driverless cars through 21 stations positioned around 4 miles of track through downtown Miami and the Brickell Avenue neighborhood. Budget documents show Miami-Dade expects to spend $9 million operating Metromover this year, which provides free rides to an estimated 10 million passengers annually.

“It is our responsibility to explore all of our options and see if there are more affordable solutions that can be put in place to deliver the same service more efficiently, but following all of our requirements,” Transit Department spokeswoman Karla Damian said in a statement Monday.

County commissioners would need to approve the outsourcing plan, which union officials oppose.

“Needless to say, we’re going to fight it tooth and nail,” said Clarence Washington, president of the Transportation Workers Union in Miami-Dade. “Once this goes to a private vendor, they don’t have to listen to the public.”

The outsourcing push comes as Miami-Dade falls further behind in funding a list of transit projects promised in exchange for a sales-tax increase that voters approved in 2002. The extra “half penny” of sales tax was pledged to a string of county transit projects that remain on the to-do list, including expanding the Metrorail train system to the western suburbs of Miami-Dade.

Another promise was to end 25-cent fares for Metromover, and those were indeed retired after the new tax passed in 2002. A proposal up for a vote Tuesday by county commissioners would discontinue the free rides and bring back what would probably be a dollar fare.

Sponsors see the move as fiscally prudent, since the entire transit system currently requires a subsidy of more than $1 million a day. And the fare revival is also being pushed as a matter of fairness, since Metromover services the prosperous downtown and Brickell areas while poorer neighborhoods rely on county buses, where rides cost $2.25 each way.

Mayor Carlos Gimenez opposes the change, as does the county’s independent transit board. Ending Metromover’s free rides requires a two-thirds vote by the 13-member county commission.

The Gimenez administration contends that reinstalling the fare equipment, along with a decrease in ridership from a new $1 fare, would end up making Metromover even more expensive to operate than it is today.

The outsourcing proposal, obtained by the Miami Herald through a public-records request, does not provide financial information. The plan would have Miami-Dade hire a company to run Metromover for a yearly payment from the county. The proposal specifies all contractor workers must be private hires, meaning the operator would be freed from county benefit rules and union pay scales.

“The private sector generally does operation and maintenance cheaper and more efficiently than the public sector does,” said Eric Zichella, a lobbyist on county procurement matters and president of the P3 Management public affairs firm in Miami. “So it’s worth exploring. You’ve got to give the mayor credit.”

A five-year financial plan for Miami-Dade’s transit system, which currently costs $620 million a year, shows looming budget gaps. For the current year, Miami-Dade withheld a planned $5.9 million revenue increase for transit from the county’s general fund, a pool of money mostly made up of property taxes. The county also held off on a recommended increase in bus fares that Gimenez proposed.

The five-year plan includes about $192 million in budget relief achieved by “additional local revenue or service cuts” through 2019. Passengers are expected to pay about $115 million this year in transit fares for a system that’s budgeted to spend $537 million on operations, leaving a gap of $422 million for the year. County taxes and grants from the state and federal government make up the difference. (Transit expects to spend an additional $80 million on paying debt this year, bringing its total budget to about $618 million for 2015.)

Metromover constitutes a tiny portion of the county’s transit operations. Its $9.1 million budget represents less than 2 percent of transit’s operating budget. The $9.1 million operating figure listed in the 2015 budget includes no overhead or administration expenses. Jennifer Moon, Miami-Dade’s budget director, said the federal government calculates Metromover’s budget at about $22 million, given its share of the transit department’s overall expenses.

With 73 full-time positions, Metromover accounts for 2 percent of transit’s 3,247-slot payroll, according to budget documents.

County policy allows a union to essentially bid on an outsourcing proposal and try to match an offer from the private sector. Washington, the union president, said TWU received unofficial notification of the plan about a month ago but is awaiting a formal plan.