Miami-Dade County

Metrorail breakdowns, staffing and ‘growing concern for safety’ cited in state report

Airport passengers and commuters board the MIA Metrorail at the airport, which had its wait times increased in 2017 due to budget shortfalls.
Airport passengers and commuters board the MIA Metrorail at the airport, which had its wait times increased in 2017 due to budget shortfalls. cmguerrero@elnuevoherald.com

Mechanical problems and staffing shortages at Miami-Dade’s cash-strapped Metrorail system have led to a “substantial decrease” in working cars, according to a state report citing a “growing concern for safety” over derailments and other issues.

The July 7 assessment from the Florida Department of Transportation describes a rail system suffering from vacant positions, chronic equipment failures and a lowering of standards that have left commuters to wait longer for Metrorail cars to arrive.

The critical state assessment comes amid mounting complaints about Metrorail and cuts in both service and funding, and as the county works on a plan that would more than triple the size of the system.

When state inspectors visited Miami-Dade in late 2016, they concluded the county needed 84 working Metrorail cars a day but that mechanical problems left only 72 that could be deployed for service. State inspectors returned in late June and found Miami-Dade’s daily goal was to have only 60 Metrorail cars in service.

Victor Wiley, the state’s program manager for transit safety, blamed the problems on aging equipment, vacancies and employees not showing up for work and said he did not see Miami-Dade prepared to address them.

While transit administrators often cite the pending purchase of new Metrorail cars as a fix for chronic mechanical issues, Wiley rejected that line of thinking.

“It appears there is no short term or immediate term, comprehensive plan in place to address this trend,” he wrote. “Waiting for the full delivery of new Metrorail vehicles cannot be recognized as an acceptable solution to these concerns.”

Alice Bravo, the county’s transportation director, said her agency recently began securing replacing parts for the aging Metrorail cars from another transit department that will allow Miami-Dade to perform more repairs while it awaits delivery of replacements later this year. She said that while transit revenues are down this year, staffing shortages cited in the report stem from burdensome union rules she hopes will be rewritten when the county signs a new contract with transportation workers.

“The issues in this letter are not budget issues,” she said of Wiley’s correspondence. She cited a long-standing union deal requiring the county to train existing employees for technical positions, including train operators and mechanics, rather than advertise for candidates with the skills already. “There are a lot of things we’re trying to change.”

Bravo cited an absenteeism rate for bus operators topping 20 percent. (The county has not provided absenteeism rates for other county departments.) Miami-Dade also plans to begin replacing the Metrorail fleet — currently the cars used when the system launched in the 1980s — later this year. By July 2018, Miami-Dade expects to have 44 new cars in service. By the end of 2018, Bravo said the county will have enough replacement cars that trains run with all new vehicles.

Jeffrey Mitchell, a leader in Miami-Dade’s transit union, said the county has managed the training requirements for decades without facing the current vacancies. “It’s been that way for 30 years. It’s not a problem,” he said. “They freeze the training and they freeze the recruitment. They’ve trimmed the training budget down to nothing.”

For 2018, Miami-Dade plans to cut the Metrorail budget in order to compensate for lower ridership and less tax money available to subsidize operations. Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s proposed 2018 budget cuts Metrorail’s $75 million budget by 6 percent. The cuts are tied to reducing daily service by one hour on the 25-mile system and extending wait times between trains 50 percent, from five minutes to seven-and-a-half minutes.

Meanwhile, county leaders are moving to divert even more money from the system in order to reserve construction dollars for the multi-billion-dollar SMART plan to expand rail countywide. A 2016 consultant’s report estimated the proposed 80-mile expansion would cost about $6 billion to build, and bring operating costs to roughly $1 million a day — about three times more than the current expense.

Miami-Dade’s 700-vehicle bus system — which provides about 65 million trips a year compared to Metrorail’s 22 million — faces a steeper cut. The proposed 2018 budget by Gimenez cuts the bus system’s $248 million budget by 8 percent. County commissioners have already approved plans to reduce bus routes and outsource others in an effort to save money amid a nearly 10 percent drop in ridership.

Wiley’s July 7 letter to the safety office for Miami-Dade’s Department of Transportation and Public Works states other transit agencies are facing the same “fundamental” problems cited in the report. “However, we are concerned about the immediate challenges facing Metrorail, including the aging infrastructure and the erosion of adequate levels of experienced and qualified staffing across all technical areas,” Wiley wrote.

He noted the slow investigations of what caused two Metrorail “derailments” earlier in 2017, and said the department needed to hire outside experts to figure out what happened. Both occurred in maintenance yards when the trains were not in service for passengers, the Transportation Department said.

Wiley also cited “numerous” vacancies in “mission-critical departments” within transit, and cited challenges from hiring freezes and other restrictions. Gimenez imposed a countywide hiring freeze in 2017 during a shortfall in sales-tax collections, including the half-percent tax that helps subsidize the Transportation Department’s $618 million budget.

The short-term funding crunch has also frustrated Miami-Dade’s efforts to create a financial plan to fund the SMART Plan. Even using the county Transportation Department’s cost estimate below $4 billion rather than the consultant’s $6 million projection, the Gimenez administration has yet to forward a funding plan for one of the six corridors that are mostly targeted for new rail lines attached to Metrorail.

With the transit system losing even more money than predicted in last year’s budget forecasts, there is no construction money in the county’s extended capital plan for the SMART system. The proposed 2018 budget lists the SMART Plan as an unfunded capital expense, needing $3.3 billion.

Even with the county’s transit network cutting service to fill budget holes, elected leaders are pushing to take more dollars out of the system to build the SMART Plan. Esteban “Steve” Bovo, chairman of the County Commission, has sponsored a series of legislation requiring Miami-Dade to reserve money from new ventures, like rented retail space at a revamped Metromover stop, for the SMART Plan rather than for current operations.

Commissioner Xavier Suarez last Thursday convinced the board that oversees the half-cent transportation tax to endorse shifting about $50 million of the revenue away from subsidizing transit operations in order to make the money available for the SMART Plan. Suarez’s plan would require Miami-Dade to find enough property taxes and other revenue to replace the lost dollars.

He also said Metrorail’s current problems should not discourage Miami-Dade from finding ways to expand it.

“Obviously we haven’t been paying the attention we should have paid to Miami-Dade transit. We have to do better,” he said. “But the fact that we build a bigger system doesn’t meant it’s going to be harder financially. We could attract a heckuva lot more riders.”

This post was updated to include the results of the transportation-tax board’s resolution urging the money be used to support the SMART Plan.

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