Miami-Dade County

Can Miami-Dade afford more rail? Or will it settle for buses?

Airport passengers and commuters leave a Metrorail car at the station at Miami International Airport, the last stop on the roughly two miles of track added to the system 15 years after Miami-Dade voters approved a half-percent sales tax that was supposed to deliver a countywide expansion of the rail system.
Airport passengers and commuters leave a Metrorail car at the station at Miami International Airport, the last stop on the roughly two miles of track added to the system 15 years after Miami-Dade voters approved a half-percent sales tax that was supposed to deliver a countywide expansion of the rail system. El Nuevo Herald

The fight over rail’s future in Miami-Dade may be coming to a head this summer.

Last year’s debut of the SMART transit plan revived hopes for the countywide expansion of rail first promised to voters during the 2002 referendum that created the half-percent transportation tax. But as the political and financial challenges of the multi-billion-dollar expansion plan have come into focus, some are suggesting Miami-Dade might be better off ditching new rail projects in favor of buses or other options.

Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who unveiled the Strategic Miami Area Rapid Transit Plan during a reelection campaign last year, has been quietly making the case that expanding rail further into the suburbs could be too costly and could risk saddling Miami-Dade with an increasingly antiquated transit technology.

In May, he floated the idea to South Dade mayors that they drop their request for a new rail line to Florida City in favor of a high-tech bus line that would eventually be replaced by driverless shuttles once those experimental vehicles were put into wide use. At a recent meeting of a county toll board, Gimenez said he does not share the common view of the SMART Plan, which has become a rallying point for expanding rail in Miami-Dade.

“I’m more about the future. I’m not about the past,” he told members of the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority, an independent toll board best known as the MDX. It runs five expressways, including State Road 836.

A separate Miami-Dade board charged with planning transportation countywide recently asked the MDX to build one of the six transit lines in the SMART Plan, with the hope that toll dollars could fund a new east-west rail line.

At a June 27 meeting, MDX board members voted to fund only a bus express line on the 836, saying there wasn’t the money for rail. The vote followed remarks by Gimenez suggesting rail might not be the most savvy option.

“We can certainly have mass transit on the 836. It doesn’t necessarily have to be on a rail,” Gimenez said before the vote. “As a matter of fact, China just came out with a train that doesn’t need rails. Those things are happening much quicker than people think … I want to make sure we’re on the vanguard of all this new technology.”

The financial prospects of the SMART Plan could start taking shape Monday when the Miami-Dade Transportation Planning Organization, a board mostly made up of county and city officials, hears presentations on funding and cost estimates for the plan. The 11 a.m. meeting of the transportation board’s Fiscal Priorities Committee will serve as something of a prelude to a full meeting of the board in September, when Chairman Esteban “Steve” Bovo said he wants a vote on which of the six SMART corridors will be built first and which must wait in line for funding.

Any financial debate about the SMART Plan will ultimately come down to whether Miami-Dade should expand its rail system. If county officials decide the mode known as bus-rapid transit is acceptable, costs would plummet.

A January 2016 study estimated that building light rail along 20 miles between the end of the Metrorail system and Florida City would cost $1.4 billion. A bus-rapid transit system — a network of express buses on dedicated roadways using rail-like stations that allow passengers to buy tickets ahead of time and board in groups — would cost about a third of that: $516 million, according to the Gannett Fleming analysis.

So far, the presumption for the SMART Plan has been to expand rail on all six corridors: one connecting Miami Beach to downtown Miami; one connecting Metrorail’s Dadeland South station to Florida City in the south and one connecting it to Florida International University in the west; one running running up Northwest 27th Avenue to Miami Gardens; one running parallel to SR 836; and one following U.S. 1 along the eastern coast to Aventura.

A November 2016 report by consultants at AECOM on SMART Plan forecasts was funded by the state and county. It assumed rail lines in all six corridors, mostly by bringing Metrorail to ground level and laying more track. The study estimated implementing the SMART Plan would cost about $6 billion.

An internal analysis by the county’s Department of Transportation and Public Works settled on a much lower cost using roughly the same assumptions. When department chief Alice Bravo presented those findings in February, the $3.3 billion construction cost assumed extended Metrorail on four corridors, extending Metromover to Miami Beach and utilizing a commuter rail system similar to Tri-Rail for the existing tracks running up to Aventura.

Those assumptions serve as placeholders until the transportation board settles on which mode of mass transit it wants to pursue for each corridor, and how the county could try to pay for it. Those decisions frame the political battle that’s been looming ever since the SMART Plan’s debut on April 21, 2016.

“I want to go for rail,” said Bovo, whose top spot at the 23-member transportation board comes from his role as chairman of the 13-seat Miami-Dade County Commission. “But I’m just one of 20-some votes.”

Miami-Dade and Florida are currently funding about $50 million worth of engineering and environmental studies for the six corridors, and the results will include cost estimates and ridership potential for each route. Those numbers should help handicap a crucial element for transit funding: How likely is Miami-Dade to secure billions of dollars in construction grants from Washington.

The SMART Plan served as a restart for Miami-Dade’s failed efforts to expand Metrorail as promised. The 2002 referendum that approved what’s commonly called the “half-penny” surtax included a plan to extend the 1980s rail line along roughly the same routes outlined in the SMART Plan.

Though the tax generates about $250 million a year, only about 14 cents of every dollar goes to expanding Metrorail. That’s the share that funds debt payments for Metrorail’s Orange Line, a two-and-a-half-mile extension to Miami International Airport that opened in 2012 and cost about $500 million.

This year saw 40 cents of every dollar collected subsidize Miami-Dade’s transit operations, a key revenue source for the cash-strapped agency that’s facing declining ridership, mounting mechanical woes and furious passengers. Revenue from fares is forecast to plunge about 15 percent in 2018, and Gimenez’s proposed 2018 budget has service cuts for both Metrorail and the county’s bus system.

Next year’s proposed budget includes a $94 million operating subsidy from the half-percent transportation tax, but there’s mounting pressure to use the money to expand rail in Miami-Dade. Last week, the county board that oversees the tax, Citizens’ Independent Transportation Trust, voted to urge the County Commission to immediately begin shifting $50 million of the transit-tax subsidy to expansion efforts.

“The time has come for us to act,” said Melissa Dynan, the trust board member who sponsored the symbolic resolution urging the shift.

The operating subsidy began under Gimenez’s predecessor, Carlos Alvarez, as a way to lessen transit cuts during the budget crisis brought on by the real estate crash that started in 2007. With the county’s property-tax revenues back to record levels, Miami-Dade Commissioner Xavier Suarez appointed Dynan to the tax board and led the campaign to get the symbolic resolution passed. He wants the transportation tax diverted from transit in order to pay for half of the county’s $3.2 billion estimate for building the SMART rail plan.

“We know we have a plan that everybody has agreed on for the first time,” he told the transit board before the vote Thursday night. “To me, it’s a no-brainer.”

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