Miami-Dade County

As Metrorail trims service, late-night riders eye the clock

Luis Gonzalez, left, and Erick Araujo await a southbound Metrorail train at the Brickell station as midnight approaches. Both are concerned about earlier closing times arriving Monday, May 22, 2017.
Luis Gonzalez, left, and Erick Araujo await a southbound Metrorail train at the Brickell station as midnight approaches. Both are concerned about earlier closing times arriving Monday, May 22, 2017. DOUGLAS HANKS

Quitting time may mean a race against transit cutbacks for Ryan Celestin, a pizza chef who takes the Metrorail home from Pinecrest to Overtown most nights. He often catches a northbound train after 11 p.m., brushing close to the new shutdown time for the county’s strapped rail system.

“We close at 10:30, but we’ll have people come in at 10:29,” said Celestin, 29, from his bench at the back of an empty Metrorail car. “It’s going to be hard. I’ll have to literally run.”

Miami-Dade’s curtailed Metrorail hours debut Monday night, when train stations that would usually be open in the midnight hour for the stragglers in one of the nation’s largest transit systems will begin closing 30 minutes to an hour earlier. The cutbacks represent the latest rollback to combat financial woes as elected leaders tout the prospects of a multibillion-dollar expansion of transit countywide.

The moment captures the challenges in traffic-clogged Miami, with elected leaders promising a path toward relief while managing the consequences of an underfunded transit system that’s facing declining ridership, aging equipment and a transportation tax hit by a tourism slump.

It’s going to be hard. I’ll have to literally run.

Ryan Celestin, pizza chef, on catching the last train home after Metrorail trims hours.

“I think the next couple of years are going to be very challenging,” said Charles Scurr, the director of an oversight board for a county sales tax that was supposed to revolutionize public transit in Miami-Dade but did not. “We think, and we hope, that the ridership has stabilized.”

Miami-Dade is trying to cut costs by shaving hours off each day’s Metrorail schedule, a move that comes on the heels of planned cuts to low-traffic bus stops. The trims coincide with efforts to start reserving money for the SMART Plan, a blueprint unveiled last year by Mayor Carlos Gimenez that’s estimated to cost between $3 billion and $6 billion to build and hundreds of millions more to run.

Rather than use all of the money saved from the bus cuts to bolster service elsewhere, Miami-Dade would divert some dollars to the SMART Plan under a proposal by Esteban “Steve” Bovo, chairman of the Miami-Dade County Commission. He inserted a similar provision into a revenue-sharing agreement with Genting for a retail center it wants to build as part of a new Omni bus stop.

The county’s half-percent sales tax for transit currently contributes about $129 million a year to operations, including the Metrorail expenses that Miami-Dade is cutting back this week. But Gimenez has pledged to cut the figure dramatically, with just $44 million in support by 2021 in order to free up the transportation tax for large construction projects, including the SMART plan.

Celestin represents the prospects of expanding mass transit. He has a car but chooses not to drive it to work, since Metrorail provides a quicker, more comfortable route. But if he winds up on the wrong side of the system’s new closing time, he’ll be left with two options he usually skips: drive or take a bus.

“This is 30 minutes to my house,” he said from a Metrorail car around 11:30 p.m. on a recent Thursday night. “The bus is like an hour.”

Transit officials say ridership is low enough during the affected hours that most passengers won’t be inconvenienced. And while the cuts are generally described as moving closing times up an hour, the more detailed schedules suggest some wiggle room. While the last northbound train traditionally pulls out of Celestin’s station, Dadeland South, at midnight, the new schedule moves that departure to 11:26 p.m.

Even so, the reduced Metrorail hours and a recently announced plan to cut some bus stops highlight the financial pressures facing Miami-Dade’s transit system as its administrators look for ways to fund an historic expansion. County leaders haven’t laid out how to pay for even one of the six corridors yet, but Bovo has requested the first pass at a financing strategy be issued by the end of the summer.

metrorail pic 3
Ryan Celestin takes the Metrorail home to Miami from the Dadeland South station. He’s hoping he can still leave the pizza shop where he works early enough to make the new departure times the rail system is launching on May 22. dhanks@miamiherald.com DOUGLAS HANKS

The SMART plan envisions rail systems extending across six routes countywide, fulfilling the central promise of a 2002 referendum that established the county’s half-percent transportation tax. With the tax largely locked up by debt obligations and other existing expenses, county leaders say they’ll need to tap property taxes, development fees and significant federal dollars to make the numbers work for expansions.

I’ll have to take a Lyft or an Uber, which is triple the money. That last hour, it means a lot.

Reyna Berrios, Metrorail passenger

Even though the county has collected roughly $2.7 billion over 15 years, most of the signature projects touted during the 2002 tax campaign remain drastically out of reach.

The county promised 44 million miles of bus service. Instead, a system of 27 million miles (calculated by the distance buses travel throughout the year) grew to about 29 million miles, according to the county board that oversees the tax.

Metrorail was going to extend in all directions, but the system has grown only three miles to connect with Miami International Airport. And while Metrorail was supposed to become a 24-hour system after the tax’s passage, the schedule that starts Monday, May 22, will move the rail line even further away from that plan.

Transit officials haven’t released a detailed schedule yet, but the agency shared arrival and departure times suggesting most stations will see their last trains finishing their runs about 30 minutes earlier than usual.

Extended hours during the weekend, rolled out last fall, also will end. Instead of halting Friday and Saturday train service at 2 a.m., the system will once again shut down at midnight, according to the May 15 announcement. The 5 a.m. trains that ran on Saturday and Sundays also will go away, leaving buses as the only option until 6 a.m.

The Orange Line, launched in 2012 as the only Metrorail expansion to come out of the 2002 tax, will end its brief experiment with trains arriving every 15 minutes on their way back and forth from MIA. Instead, they’ll arrive every half hour.

metrorail MIA
Airport passengers and commuters board the Metrorail Orange Line at Miami International Airport. The line is ending its brief experiment with more frequent trains. C.M. GUERRERO. cmguerrero@elnuevoherald.com

Transit officials labeled the cuts as trimming along the edges of the system, aimed at times when the fewest passengers board trains. “I would characterize this as minor,” said Alice Bravo, director of the county’s Transportation and Public Works department, which includes Transit, “because we specifically targeted times and routes that were really being underutilized.”

Union leaders brand the rollback as yet another example of a county underfunding its transit system, pointing to chronic breakdowns that leave Metrorail subject to delays and crowded conditions as more cars are pulled from service. A recent Fleet Status report provided by the transit union shows 50 Metrorail cars available for service but 83 unavailable because of mechanical or repair issues.

“The system couldn’t do the maintenance,” said Clarence Washington, the transit union’s president, “because they won’t hire the people who can fix it.”

The Gimenez administration blames the union for some of the system’s financial struggles. At a recent meeting with county commissioners, he pointed to an absenteeism rate topping 20 percent, and said overtime costs related to the missed work cascades through the budget and makes it more expensive than necessary.

Even so, transit administrators acknowledge breakdowns are a big part of the current troubles. “When you buy new buses and you get the new trains, the first thing you can do is reduce the amount of overtime you need” to keep the old equipment running, said Jennifer Moon, the county’s budget director.

The start of a turnaround on the maintenance side could arrive in the coming months as Miami-Dade delivers dozens of new Metrorail cars. The first four are slated to arrive at the end of 2017, followed by 40 in 2018.

Buying the cars will add strain to the transit tax, with about $375 million slated to be borrowed next year for the 136-car purchase. The last new car would go into service by 2020.

While the tax was pitched as a way to pay for new projects, the largest chunk of last year’s $254 million in collections went to subsidize transit operations that would otherwise be paid for with property taxes and other government revenue. Fares cover less than 30 cents of every dollar Miami-Dade spends on buses and rail, leaving government dollars to fill the gap.

With the sales tax missing forecasts amid a tourism decline — and fare revenue down as much as 10 percent this year thanks in part to lower gas prices — Miami-Dade is trying to save about $30 million through bus and rail cuts.

For Luis Gonzalez, a 24-year-old sushi chef, the cutbacks will make quitting time all the more important. “Tonight, I got out at 11:30 because it got a little busy,” he said while waiting for a southbound train at the Brickell station, his sushi knives in a case by his side. “The train is definitely convenient for me. It’s better than putting miles on my car.”

Sitting next to him, Erick Araujo, 29, said he lives near Metrorail because of traffic. “I used to live in Kendall,” said Araujo, a hotel desk clerk. “I had to move.”

Reyna Berrios, 29, learned about the Metrorail rollbacks when she saw a flier on her way to the Brickell station as midnight approached. She was nursing a sore foot on the southbound train as she outlined her options if the new departure times end up too early for her schedule in the hospitality business.

“I’ll have to take a Lyft or an Uber, which is triple the money,” she said. “That last hour, it means a lot.”

Tonia Harris leaves her home in Perrine at 6 a.m. to get to work in downtown Miami. She rides to the Busway, boards a bus to the Dadeland South Station, boards a train to the Government Center and then walks to 155 NW Third Street.

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