Miami-Dade County

We can’t afford to build new rail lines, Miami-Dade mayor says

Miami-Dade can’t afford to build more rail lines and should invest millions in transit dollars creating modernized express bus systems running north and south, Mayor Carlos Gimenez said Monday.

“I look at this as part of my job: Be realistic, bring us down to earth,” Gimenez told members of a county transportation board. “I know there’s going to be push back. I know there’s going to be a lot of people who have different ideas about what we should do. But we’ve been looking at this for some time. And these numbers are real.”

Gimenez’s $534 million proposal for rapid-bus routes would indefinitely defer the Metrorail expansion promised voters in 2002 during a referendum for a half-percent transportation tax that currently generates about $250 million a year.

It also would leave the mayor’s celebrated SMART Plan to expand rapid transit countywide mostly as a blueprint for faster bus service in the short-term rather than an historic expansion of rail in multiple directions countywide. Gimenez and his aides did say there is enough money in the current 40-year financial forecasts to allow Miami-Dade to help subsidize an expansion of Tri-Rail along existing private-sector tracks that run parallel to Biscayne Boulevard in Northeast Miami-Dade.

Other elected leaders said they would refuse to drop the rail ambitions that have come to surround the SMART Plan. Gimenez unveiled the plan during his reelection campaign last year, then touted it on a television ad under the headline “More Rail Lines.”

“If we want to get people out of their cars, they’re not going to get out of their cars for” rapid-transit buses, Commissioner Barbara Jordan told Gimenez. “But they will get out of their cars for a rail system.”

By purchasing land for dedicated bus lanes along Northwest 27th Avenue, Miami-Dade would secure real estate needed for a future rail line there if the county could afford one in the future, said Alice Bravo, Gimenez’s transit chief. “What you do now is a down payment for future rail,” she said.

Esteban “Steve” Bovo, chairman of the County Commission, said he had been holding back proposed legislation designed to accelerate rail plans so that it would not conflict with the administration’s pending plans. Bovo said he would introduce legislation inviting private developers to submit transit proposals for the SMART Plan’s six corridors, and that he wants Miami-Dade to pour money into one of them to prove something impressive can get built.

“Everything in this county has to be force fed,” Bovo said. “We’re going to be bold, or we’re not going to be bold.”

Jordan, Bovo and the other 11 county commissioners sit on the Transportation Planning Organization, a board made up mostly of local government officials that is helping manage the SMART Plan study process. Monday’s committee meeting of the board’s Fiscal Priorities committee was the first time the Gimenez administration outlined a detailed plan to expand transit as part of the SMART process.

Gimenez proposed spending close to $300 million in county funds on special lanes and overpasses to be used by a new generation of buses designed to resemble small trains, with air-conditioned stations allowing pre-ticketing and group boarding. Gimenez also said in about five years there would be enough spare dollars to help subsidize an expansion of Tri-Rail or a privately-run commuter rail along tracks owned by Florida East Coast Railway, which is building the new for-profit Brightline railway between Miami and Orlando.

His plan would bring Miami-Dade its first system widely known as “bus rapid transit” within three years. The umbrella term generally refers to buses running on dedicated lanes separated from everyday traffic, and travel along a limited number of express stops with rail-like depots allowing for advance ticket purchases and group boarding.

He also emphasized that acquiring the land in the north corridor would accomplish a pricey step needed to build rail there, too, should the county’s financial circumstances change or Miami-Dade find other sources of revenue for transit. That could include substantial federal funding, which county officials said Monday they do not think is likely in 2017.

“We need to get started,” Gimenez said.

While Miami-Dade already owns a 20-mile dedicated roadway for buses in the south, it would need to spend significant dollars creating a dedicated lane in the north. County officials did not have a breakdown of the costs in the $534 million plan, but Gimenez said it would include elevating some intersections along the South Dade busway that runs parallel to U.S.1 to avoid delays from cross-street traffic.

On the north route along 27th Avenue, Miami-Dade would rely on computer-operated traffic signals to clear paths for the rapid-bus vehicles, offering a speedy alternative to driving or the regular Metrobus stops, Bravo said.

“The sales pitch is we have a way for a lot of people to save time in their daily commute,” Bravo said. “And we can implement it quickly.”

Ridership on Miami-Dade’s existing bus system fell about 10 percent this year, and elected leaders across the county have been demanding expanded rail service to reduce congestion. Using buses as a substitute has already met backlash. When Miami-Dade wanted to upgrade stops in South Dade, local mayors refused to endorse the $115 million plan without a pledge that the stops could be retrofitted into light-rail depots. Miami-Dade also agreed to rename what was then the South Dade Busway as the South Dade Transitway.

The Gimenez memo outlining his proposal employs the term “rubber-tired vehicles” for the rapid-bus system. It would cost $534 million to acquire the land, build the stations and purchase the vehicles, according to the mayor’s memo. The financial plan assumes Florida will pick up half the tab for building the new system.

His memo said the plan consumes the county’s transportation dollars for decades into the future. More revenue would be needed to fund other efforts — including a $140 million rapid-bus line between Miami and Miami Beach and a $194 million one in Kendall. The Miami-Dade Expressway Authority has agreed to fund express bus service along State Road 836 as part of the SMART Plan.

Building rail in the north and south would cost between $831 million and $1.1 billion, according to the memo. Extending Metromover to Miami Beach would cost $400 million. His administration did not offer a cost estimate for a rail line in Kendall, saying the option was not well received during public meetings in the area about the SMART Plan.

Faced with drops in fare revenue and collections from the half-percent transportation tax, Gimenez’s 2018 budget includes service cuts for both Metrorail and the bus system. It lists the SMART Plan as a $3.3 billion unfunded capital project, the cost his administration in February attached to building rail on the six corridors. A consultant last year estimated the cost would be closer to $6 billion.

The county’s financial forecast assumes no new revenue sources for transit. Some commissioners want to create taxing districts along new rail lines that would divert property taxes tied to growth away from police, fire and other government services and toward transit expenses. Other options include doubling the current transportation tax to a full 1 percent.

“We promised people in 2002 rail. We recommitted in 2016 to rail,” Commissioner Dennis Moss said. “And we need to explore every option available to try and make good on that original promise.”

When Gimenez first presented the SMART Plan to the transportation board last year, it served as a reset of the planning process stalled since the 2002 referendum. The plan authorized spending $50 million in state and federal funds to conduct lengthy studies on the six corridors, and the pending reports will include options on bus and rail for each route.

For a major rail line, Miami-Dade would need a substantial chunk of funding from Washington, as well as tens of millions in dollars of local money to fund operations and maintenance.

“I’m giving you a presentation on what’s real right now,” Gimenez said. “Right now you can’t afford rail on both the north and the south corridors. You can’t. In fact, you might not even be able to afford rail on one corridor.”

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