Miami-Dade’s bus system wants to trim stops and hire a private operator for some of its least-popular routes in a move to save millions of dollars during a rocky year for transit.
Ridership is down throughout Miami-Dade, with bus boardings off by nearly 10 percent for the year and Metrorail trailing 2016 results by 6 percent, according to the most recent data. Transit officials blame the combination of a strong labor market with lower gas prices, making it easier for would-be riders to hop in a car to travel.
“Obviously, we have an issue,” said Alice Bravo, the county’s transportation chief. “We need these savings immediately.”
To save about $24 million a year, Miami-Dade’s Transit agency wants permission from the County Commission to trim back bus service and outsource some operations. The proposal to cut nearly 10 percent of Metrobus’s $248 million budget has drawn another battle line in the county’s fight with the transit union over employee benefits and privatization efforts.
[For a look at the top complaints in Miami-Dade’s bus system, read our #busgripes report.]
“They are killing the transit system as we know it,” said Clarence Washington, president of the county’s transit union.
The proposed cutbacks at Transit come during a political push for an historic increase in transit spending as Mayor Carlos Gimenez leads the charge to expand rail countywide. Known as the SMART Plan, his blueprint proposes six new railways that a consultant’s study says could cost $6 billion to build and bring the system’s daily operating costs to about $1 million a day.
Buses provide two out of three transit rides in Miami-Dade, with about 65 million trips a year. (By comparison, Miami International Airport reported about 45 million passengers in 2016.) The 25-mile Metrorail system reports about 22 million rides a year.
Brandon Kerns takes a county bus each day from Miami Beach to his scientist job on Key Biscayne, and advocates for transit riders through his @miasmartrans Twitter account. He said the county’s new app, which lets riders track buses digitally, has made his commute easier, especially with chronically late arrivals.
“That’s been the one major improvement over the last three years,” he said. “A lot of times [buses] are delayed. But I can deal with that.”
Transit’s savings plan includes discontinuing a pair of bus routes in Miami and reducing stops in nine others across the county. South Beach 123 also would be transferred to the Miami Beach trolley system. The county’s top trolley operator, for-profit Transportation America, would take over 14 routes using smaller buses and non-union workers paid significantly less than existing operators.
While private operators on most county contracts must pay employees the county’s living wage of $14.69 an hour, Miami-Dade’s union workers generally earn considerably more in pay and benefits. Transportation America, a Miami-based company with several lucrative county contracts, said it can operate a bus route for about $50 an hour, compared to the county’s cost of $130 an hour.
The stark divide in labor costs between the public and private sectors is one reason Miami-Dade sees privatization as a key element in the SMART Plan. Gimenez is touting the possibility of public-private partnerships, an outsourcing model that typically has a for-profit company pay to build a transit system and then operate it in exchange for decades of hefty payments from the government.
Transit is one of two county unions still in contract talks with the Gimenez administration, and the negotiations have apparently stalled. When Gimenez addressed the bus-savings proposal at a Thursday committee meeting with county commissioners, he called on the union president to publicly agree to a date and time to meet with the administration next week. Washington agreed to a session, but said administration representatives weren’t giving the union enough time to analyze the cost-savings proposals.
“This was forced upon us,” Washington said. He said cutting back service on the heavily subsidized transit system defies transit’s mission of providing transportation to those who need it. He noted voters in 2002 approved a half-percent sales tax for transit, with one pledge being an expanded bus service. “This violates the spirit” of that agreement, he said.
Transit officials did not lay out the actual stops to be eliminated as they pare down certain routes, but Bravo described the move as a “straightening process” because it will eliminate some detours from major streets and roads. Other routes will have fewer buses assigned to them, increasing maximum planned waits from 10 minutes to 14 minutes.
Bravo said city-run trolleys and mini buses known as circulators already serve many of the areas targeted for cuts. That’s also the case, she said, with the two routes Miami-Dade wants to end entirely: Route 6 runs between the Brickell and Coconut Grove Metrorail stations, and Route 48 connects the stops between the Douglas Road and Brickell stations. Both routes saw ridership drop more than 25 percent this year, Bravo said.
“Basically, we’re adjusting the capacity of the routes for the new lower ridership we’re experiencing,” Bravo said.
Miami-Dade bus routes that would lose stops under Transit plan: 40, 56, 62, 103, 107, 108, 115.117, 136, 183, and 252.