Miami-Dade County

‘Trains are 19th century technology,’ Miami-Dade mayor says in touting cheaper options

After running a campaign ad last year touting “More Rail Lines,” Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez on Wednesday defended his new pitch for modernized express bus systems running north and south of Miami.

“My mind was there … for more rail lines,” Gimenez said during a meeting with the Miami Herald Editorial Board. “I’ve gone away from that. … I’m about more looking into the future. I’m not so much about looking into 19th century technology. And trains are 19th century technology.”

Gimenez still wants to pour millions of dollars a year in county funds into subsidizing a new commuter rail line between Miami and Aventura, but those trains would run on tracks being laid by a private company as part of the larger for-profit Brightline railway running to Orlando.

This week, he unveiled his recommendations for how Miami-Dade should fund transit on the other five corridors that are being considered for new county rail lines — mostly as extensions of the existing Metrorail or Metromover systems. County commissioners and city leaders are pressing for billions of dollars to acquire land and lay down new track, as was promised voters when they approved a half-percent sales tax for transportation in 2002.

The long-term financial forecasts released by Gimenez’s budget office this week amid declining transit ridership and weak collections of the county’s transportation tax show Miami-Dade wouldn’t have the money to build new rail lines — or operate them.

“I’m not abandoning anything. I’m just telling you what is the art of the possible,” Gimenez said. “If additional resources come our way, more things may be possible. This is what we can do, with what we have today.”

His $534 million plan to create rapid-bus corridors along Northwest 27th Avenue to the north and U.S. 1 to the south would bring Miami-Dade its first network of buses designed to offer some perks of commuter rail. The forecasts assume Florida would pick up half the tab, but no federal dollars.

The buses would run free of traffic in dedicated lanes: an expanded roadway off 27th that Miami-Dade would need to buy, and the existing lanes best known as the South Dade Busway off U.S. 1 (it was renamed the Transitway last year amid local backlash over efforts to abandon rail promises there). They also would stop at a limited number of express stops, outfitted with air-conditioned depots that allow passengers to purchase tickets in advance and then board as a group.

“We’re going to give you something that looks like a train,” Gimenez said.

He also described his plan as a potential way station toward a larger rail system, since many of the big-ticket expenses in it would be required for expanding Metrorail, too. Miami-Dade would need to acquire the land along 27th Avenue to lay track there, anyway, and the seven overpasses planned along U.S. 1 for the rapid-bus lanes would be strong enough to accommodate rail as well.

“Our proposal says get the right-of-way, make the improvements, so that in the event you do get additional funding, you could always use something different,” he said. “You can always go to rail or something different in the future.”

In 2016, when Gimenez was running for his final four-year term, the mayor unveiled what was dubbed the SMART transit plan, which sought to reset Miami-Dade’s failed efforts from 2002 to expand transit.

The plan itself really consisted of a planning process, with Florida and Miami-Dade spending $50 million to analyze whether rail, rapid-bus or other options would be best for six targeted corridors. Those corridors are the Northeast line owned by Brightline; a stretch in Kendall; and four connecting Miami to Miami Gardens to the north, Miami Beach to the east, Florida City to the south and Florida International University to the west.

During his reelection campaign, Gimenez filmed a commercial on a Metrorail car where he touted the SMART Plan. He also referenced Miami-Dade’s plan to purchase new Metrorail cars over the next two years.

“My vision for the future of transit is the SMART Plan,” he said as text above him read “More Rail Lines.”

“Six new transit corridors all throughout Miami-Dade,” he continued. “By this time next year, new trains will be available to our residents with amenities like Wi-Fi that will make their ride that much more comfortable. I want to continue to be the mayor of Miami-Dade County so we can continue to add the infrastructure here in Miami-Dade that our residents need to create a better quality of life.”

His proposal this week sparked criticism from other elected officials who have been clamoring for a plan to expand Metrorail farther into the suburbs. “It seems like everything we have discussed … has changed overnight,” Perla Tabares Hantman, a school board member who also sits on the county’s Transportation Planning Organization, said after Gimenez’s presentation to the group Monday.

Other leaders said Gimenez’s outlook largely confirmed conventional thinking on the SMART Plan: that Miami-Dade didn’t have a viable funding approach to building rail at the moment. But they weren’t ready to pursue other options.

“As to not having enough funding, we all knew that when we wrote the plan,” County Commissioner Jean Monestime said Thursday during a Transportation Planning Organization meeting. “We’ve just got to stay the course,” Chairman Esteban “Steve” Bovo said.

Consultants are working on the SMART Plan studies, which include public meetings, and they’re expected to be finished sometime next year.

Miami-Dade’s rail pursuits always hinged on Washington covering a significant chunk of the construction costs, but Gimenez said that seems unlikely given proposed cuts by President Donald Trump’s administration. “There’s no new federal money that we know of for rail,” he said.

But even if Washington did come through, Miami-Dade wouldn’t have the money to operate an expanded Metrorail system, according to a financial forecast from his office. It shows 10 years worth of operating deficits of $20 million or more for a rail line connecting Florida City and Miami Gardens.

Gimenez noted the July 2016 ad did not quote him calling for more rail lines. But he acknowledged at the time his mind-set matched the “More Rail Lines” message in the ad. A year later, Gimenez said he’s concluded that a coming revolution of driverless vehicles is likely to so dramatically change how people travel on roadways that systems like Metrorail will be left obsolete.

“Even if we had all of the money in the world, I may not be there,” he said of the county building more rail lines. “I want to make sure the investments we make are long-term investments that actually bring value.”

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