Miami-Dade County

A Miami-Dade rarity: a speedy bus route that’s actually attracting passengers

Dania Franco pauses before boarding the 34 Express from Cutler Bay to the Dadeland South Metrorail station on a recent weekday morning.
Dania Franco pauses before boarding the 34 Express from Cutler Bay to the Dadeland South Metrorail station on a recent weekday morning. DOUGLAS HANKS

Each morning, Dania Franco drives to a commuter lot near a Cutler Bay Target, walks over to a partially sheltered bus stop and waits for the No. 34 bus to take her to a Metrorail station nine miles away. Franco seems pretty chipper about it.

“It’s great,” she said during the three-minute wait for an extra-long, 2015 express bus offering a direct, traffic-free zip to the Dadeland South station along the county’s only dedicated bus lanes. “Right now, I think the buses are better than the trains.”

Franco’s commuting habits make her a rarity in Miami-Dade: The 43-year-old office worker at Royal Caribbean rides a bus route that regularly attracts more passengers than it did last year. The popularity of the 34 Express — the only major route posting consistent growth in a year when ridership is down nearly 10 percent — offers a lesson in what’s possible for bus travel in Miami-Dade at a time when the vehicles are parked in the center of the county’s transit debate.

On one side is Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s $534 million plan to modernize the South Dade busway and create new dedicated bus lanes in the north that would connect Miami to Miami Gardens. The plan would create two “rapid” bus corridors serving special air-conditioned depots that allow for advanced ticketing and group boarding, with a new fleet of low-riding buses designed to look like trains.

On the other side are county commissioners and city leaders blasting the notion of Miami-Dade once again abandoning a countywide expansion of Metrorail first promised to voters in a 2002 referendum. Voters approved a half-percent sales tax for transportation that so far has generated about $2.8 billion in revenue and less than three miles of new rail.

“We are not going to settle for bus in South Dade,” said Peggy Bell, the mayor of Cutler Bay. “Most cities within the United States have good rail systems for commuters. That is what was promised to the residents. And that’s what they want.”

In some ways, the growing ridership on the 34 Express reflects past problems. Late last year, Miami-Dade added more buses to the route and split it in two to address years of complaints about jam-packed buses and passengers left fuming at stops as full vehicles drove by. With the added capacity, ridership grew.

But with other routes down countywide, the strong demand for the 34 Express highlights the potential for the kind of modernized bus routes Gimenez proposed. Franco and her fellow 34 Express passengers enjoy a package of upgrades and perks reserved for a tiny portion of Miami-Dade’s 850-bus fleet, which is facing funding cuts, outsourcing of routes and the elimination of bus stops to balance the system’s $248 million budget.

Not so on the 34 Express. Franco regularly rides on one of the $1 million, extra-long buses Miami-Dade bought three years ago to reduce crowding on long routes. As a South Dade passenger, Franco gets to use the only dedicated bus lanes in the county — a 20-mile stretch of road that runs parallel to the chronically clogged U.S. 1. Most importantly, as one of about a dozen express lines, the 34 bus skips most of the 15 stops between the park-and-ride lot that Franco uses off Southwest 112nd Avenue and Dadeland South.

“I used to drive up to Coral Gables,” William Snyder, a 43-year-old technology worker, said as he left the 34 Express bus at the Dadeland South station. “I’ve saved 45 minutes.”

Gimenez won reelection last year while touting his 2016 “SMART” transit plan, which launched about $50 million worth of state and county studies on the best modes of mass transit for six main commuting corridors in Miami-Dade.

And while consultants are still examining whether more trains seem viable in each location, county leaders embraced the SMART effort as a way to revive the county’s rail ambitions. Two financial studies backed by Miami-Dade both assumed rail on all six SMART corridors, and Gimenez touted the plan in a campaign ad last year with a headline “More Rail Lines.”

On July 17, Gimenez unveiled his first concrete proposal on the SMART Plan, and it included zero dollars to build new rail lines. The mayor did say Miami-Dade could contribute an undisclosed amount of subsidy dollars to a commuter rail line planned between Miami and Aventura that would be part of the new for-profit Brightline railway to Orlando.

On the corridors considered for a Metrorail expansion, Gimenez instead proposed improved bus systems: express buses along State Road 836 funded by the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority, and a $534 million blueprint to replicate and improve the speedy bus service Franco enjoys.

Some of the expense would come from acquiring land along Northwest 27th Avenue needed to create the county’s second “busway” — this one running from Miami through Miami Gardens to the Broward County line. On the South Dade busway, the county would build seven overpasses to let buses avoid some of the intersections that currently are the only impediment to a nonstop ride for express routes.

[What infuriates Miami-Dade’s bus passengers? Search the Miami Herald’s #busgripes database. ]

And rather than the current network of roadside bus stops, the new “rapid-transit” bus system would utilize a limited number of air-conditioned stations designed to offer some rail-like conveniences. Those include pre-ticketing and group boarding, with the new fleet of buses equipped with bay doors allowing dozens of passengers to step inside at once.

Given the cost and the lower regulatory hurdles, transit officials say the rapid-bus system could be up and running within a few years. Alice Bravo, Gimenez’s transportation director, said the 34 Express’ growth shows the appeal of a commuting option that performs better than driving.

“I think the important lesson is people want to save time,” she said. “Regardless of what type of vehicle you’re using.”

Gimenez pitched his plan as a nod to fiscal realities — building rail north and south would cost as much as $1.8 billion, according to his administration’s estimates, and require $3 for every $1 dollar needed to operate the rapid-bus system. He also said the spending would position Miami-Dade to expand rail along the two corridors if financial circumstances improve, since the bus depots could serve trains and the county would finally have the land needed for tracks along 27th Avenue.

In proposing a major bus upgrade, he also drew heat for positioning his plan as a more reasonable interim step as Miami-Dade awaited a commuting revolution. He argued that autonomous vehicles will make highway shuttles so cheap and efficient that Metrorail will be rendered a transit dinosaur.

“I want to make sure the investments we make are long-term investments that actually bring value,” he told the Miami Herald Editorial Board. “I’m not so much looking into 19th-century technology.”

Gimenez’s proposal would add Miami-Dade to the small but growing list of U.S. municipalities opting for what’s called “bus-rapid transit” — express bus lines that run on dedicated lanes and allow for group boarding.

Cleveland has a seven-mile dedicated busway known as the HealthLine, which launched in 2008 and runs electric buses to the city’s hospital district. Los Angeles opened its Orange Line bus-rapid-transit system in 2005, and Las Vegas boasts several “BRT” routes after launching its first in 2004.

Jacob Mason, part of a think tank that advocates for rapid-bus systems, pointed to Mexico City and Bogotá as having model systems because they link entire cities with dedicated bus lanes. He said that’s a step most U.S. cities fall short on, particularly when it comes to giving buses the kind of priority at intersections needed for a true rapid system.

“Prioritizing transit means giving less time to drivers,” said Mason, a research manager at the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy in Washington, D.C. “That’s often a tough political task.”

While the South Dade busway would get overpasses for some intersections, Miami-Dade would rely on computerized signals to give approaching buses longer green lights for the rest — including all of the crossings on 27th Avenue. The promise of that technology faces an early test this fall when Miami-Dade plans to expand a pilot program of computerized signals to the South Dade busway.

A rapid-bus system also would continue to deprive commuters of the one-seat commute that an expanded Metrorail would bring to the northern and southern suburbs and cities where driving to Miami can exceed two hours during rush hour. Critics of Gimenez’s plan see no hope in making a dent in traffic or persuading motorists they have a viable option in transit.

In some ways, the popularity of the 34 Express serves as ammunition for some of the fiercest bus critics. They point to the South Dade busway, in operation since 1997 but recently renamed the Transitway, as proof that rubber-wheeled vehicles running on roads just aren’t going to solve the region’s traffic woes.

“I think it’s a joke,” Rep. Kionne McGheewho represents South Dade in Tallahassee, said of upgrading the busway. Given the promises of more rail made to voters in 2002 for the transportation tax, McGhee said buses should be considered a surrender on that original effort. “The whole objective is rail,” he said. “If there is going to be a push for more buses, then it is only logical that the people stop paying into the half-penny tax.”

Until recently, the 34 Express was considered a prime example of the county’s suffering bus passengers. A 2015 Miami Herald analysis of passenger feedback submissions found that the route had an out-sized share of complaints about crowded buses — with four capacity complaints for every 100,000 rides, far ahead of the countywide rate of 0.5 capacity complaints per 100,000 rides.

The reason: regular-sized buses traveling the full route, packed to capacity and often so full they blew by stops and left passengers fuming. In late 2015, Miami-Dade deployed the new extra-long buses to South Dade, which has about a quarter of the fleet. It also split the express route, with a southern leg allowed to skip all of the northern stops, which are covered by a separate northern leg.

“Clearly, the quality was ‘F,’ ” said Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava, who represents a South Dade district and fought a push to cancel the extra-long buses, which are blamed for traffic problems when deployed on more congested city streets. “We really were not treating [passengers] humanely with buses that were well beyond their useful life … I think it’s gotten significantly better because of the new buses.”

Passengers on the 34 still complain of crowding during rush hour, with even the extra-long buses sometimes overwhelmed by waves of passengers heading north and south. But the route has proved popular even as other express routes along the South Dade busway posted ridership declines. Bravo credited the 34’s growth on the split route, which allows buses to accelerate the number of times they can make the runs to and from Dadeland South.

Franco still sees the downsides of Miami-Dade’s cash-strapped transit system. While the 34 Express has some of the county’s newest buses, Franco also uses the county’s aging fleet of Metrorail cars for the third leg of her commute to PortMiami. “It can be sunny outside but it’s raining in the trains” because of leaking air-conditioning systems or other issues, Franco said. Recently, an entire car was closed to passengers “because it was so wet.”

She takes Metrorail to the Overtown station, where she boards a Royal Caribbean shuttle the company started after Miami-Dade stopped the circulator that used to run between Overtown and PortMiami. She said the whole trip takes her about an hour — roughly half of what she would face during rush hour on U.S. 1 and then through downtown Miami.

“You don’t have to bother with driving, the wear-and-tear on your car, and the gas and the tolls,” she said. Plus, the stress. “People in Miami, they drive a little crazy. Especially when it rains.”

Not that Franco relishes her daily switch from bus to train. At the bus stop, a fellow passenger asks about the push to extend Metrorail farther south.

“Oh, that would be amazing,” Franco said. “I have been in Homestead 14 years now. Ever since I moved, I heard they were going to extend the Metrorail. That would be great.”