Miami-Dade County

County paying transit consultants $12 million but can’t find $5 million to lift Metrorail cuts

It’s been a rocky year for Miami-Dade’s Metrorail system, with service cuts that would require about $5 million in 2018 to lift. The county says it doesn’t have the money.
It’s been a rocky year for Miami-Dade’s Metrorail system, with service cuts that would require about $5 million in 2018 to lift. The county says it doesn’t have the money. El Nuevo Herald

With budget cuts causing longer waits for Metrorail trains, Deborah Sprouse sometimes uses tactical retreats in her commute to combat crowded trains.

“Some mornings, I’ll be waiting for the northbound train at Dadeland,” said the administrative assistant from Kendall. “I’ll hop on the south train just so I get a seat when it goes back north.”

In a rocky year for Miami-Dade’s transit system, lifting recently imposed cuts on Metrorail would cost about $5 million. Miami-Dade says it doesn’t have the money in the 2018 budget for that kind of relief since revenue from transit fares and the county’s transportation taxes isn’t hitting budget targets.

As the $5 million in service cuts fuels more frustration for Metrorail passengers, Miami-Dade expects to pay consultants $12 million next year to study whether to expand the county’s rail system farther into the suburbs or pursue more affordable options. The money for Miami-Dade’s “SMART” transit plan for six major commuting corridors comes from the same half-percent sales tax that subsidizes Metrorail, Metromover and county buses.

The dollars are funding a planning process that was recently jolted when the county’s mayor, Carlos Gimenez, released a $534 million proposal to develop modernized bus corridors from the northern and southern ends of Metrorail. Last month he pitched the approach as a cheaper and far quicker fix than rail, which would cost billions.

Let the consultants do their work.

Paul Schwiep, former chairman of a board that oversees the county’s half-percent transit tax

Supporters of Gimenez defended his July 14 proposal as merely outlining one scenario the county could pursue once the extensive “SMART” planning process concludes next year. Others questioned why the mayor would step in with a detailed transit proposal while consultants working for his transit agency are being paid millions to develop their own recommendations.

“Let the consultants do their work,” said Paul Schwiep, a Miami lawyer and former chairman of a board that oversees the county’s half-percent transit tax. “We really shouldn’t be suggesting to them one solution or another. … You need to have the data first.”

Gimenez’s memo to the Transportation Planning Organization, a board of county and city officials who oversee federal dollars for local roads and transit systems, delivered some discouraging conclusions to rail advocates. Given the slim prospects of federal funding and — more crucially — the hundreds of millions in transit obligations over the next several decades — Miami-Dade could not afford to build new rail lines.

For years, this thing was an albatross. Now that everyone is using it, they’re making it difficult to ride it. It doesn’t make sense.

Metrorail passenger Deborah Sprouse

Instead, Gimenez proposed purchasing the land needed for a single rail expansion north of Miami but using the property to create the county’s first “rapid bus” system: express vehicles running on dedicated lanes between modern air-conditioned depots that offer rail-like amenities, including pre-ticketing and group boarding.

A similar system would be created in South Dade, where the county already owns a 20-mile dedicated busway that would be upgraded with the modernized stations as well as overpasses to let buses avoid stopping at intersections.

His plan also included an undisclosed yearly subsidy for a new commuter rail that is expected to launch someday on private tracks being laid to support the for-profit Brightline passenger rail that’s supposed to eventually connect Miami to Orlando. For the three other corridors being studied as part of the Strategic Miami Area Rapid Transit Plan studies, Gimenez said they would have to wait for either an influx in federal grants or other local funding beyond what’s in the county’s 40-year plan for transportation dollars.

It was the first time anyone in his administration had publicly outlined the financial confines of implementing any recommendations from the SMART Plan, an effort that Gimenez himself launched last year and then touted in campaign ads during his 2016 reelection run. The plan launched what’s expected to be about $50 million worth of consultant studies on the county’s six main commuting corridors.

“The message out of the mayor’s office is essentially: What is being discussed is irrelevant, because I’ve already made my decision,” said Marta Viciedo, a founder of a new advocacy group called the Transit Alliance Miami. “That I find to be incredibly problematic. It puts us back to square one, without consensus.”

The mayor responded with realistic options and was not advocating for one particular mode of transportation.

Michael Hernández, spokesman for Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez

In a presentation to county commissioners and others that sit on the transportation board, Gimenez said he knew his proposal would invite criticism but that he was presenting “real numbers” intended to “bring us down to earth.” He also emphasized that the rapid-bus improvements would take care of one major expense should the county find the money for a northern rail line, since Miami-Dade would acquire land on Northwest 27th Avenue needed for either dedicated bus lanes or train tracks.

The Gimenez administration also stressed that the proposal could provide commuters relief within a few years, rather than forcing Miami-Dade to wait through the extended federal study process that laying railroad tracks requires. “We have a way for a lot of people to save time in their daily commute,” said Alice Bravo, Gimenez’s transit director. “And we can implement it quickly.”

Though the mayor submitted a transit proposal while his administration pays consultants to recommend a transit plan, a spokesman said Gimenez is not recommending one course over the other.

We’re not just looking at the SMART Plan now. There’s Smart Plan II. There’s Smart Plan III.

Aileen Bouclé, executive director of the Miami-Dade Transportation Planning Organization

“Mayor Gimenez was asked by the Transportation Planning Organization for his view on what mode of transportation the county could bring online fastest and with the dollars we have projected to be available,” said Michael Hernández, communications director for the mayor. “The mayor responded with realistic options and was not advocating for one particular mode of transportation.”

Aileen Bouclé, executive director of the transportation board, said Gimenez’s views were welcome as part of a broader effort to build consensus toward a SMART transit plan that could actually be implemented.

“This is the time to be having these critical conversations,” she said. “This is when you’ll be hearing lots of ideas and lots of concepts coming to the table. … We want to fully vet these ideas.”

Bouclé noted that the consultants are producing the detailed reports needed to pursue hundreds of millions in dollars from Washington and Florida for transit expansion. That’s a crucial factor even for bus options, since Gimenez’s strategy relies on the state picking up 50 cents of every dollar needed for the north and south routes.

She also said it’s a mistake to focus solely on what’s financially possible in the short term, since the process takes a far longer view. “We’re not just looking at the SMART Plan now,” she said. “There’s Smart Plan II. There’s Smart Plan III.”

The SMART Plan process is using a mix of mostly state and county funds to pay engineering firms to analyze the viability of rail and cheaper alternatives for five commuting routes to Miami: the south, from Florida City; the north, from the Broward line; the east, from South Beach; the west, along the Dolphin Expressway; and the northeast, from Aventura. A sixth would connect Kendall to Metrorail in the south.

A summary on the transportation board’s website suggests that the consultants’ fees will approach $50 million once the studying process has finished, and AECOM, Parsons and other engineering firms hired by Florida and Miami-Dade for the work are expected to submit final recommendations next year. Miami-Dade has budgeted $32 million for its portion of the work, and $12 million is slated to go to consultants during the budget year that begins Oct. 1.

That’s a tiny portion of the county’s $600 million budget for the country’s 15th largest transit system. And closing Metrorail’s budget gaps would require about $5 million a year, while consultant fees for the SMART Plan constitute one-time expenses.

But the money in Gimenez’s proposed budget for transit studies comes at a raw time for Metrorail passengers, since the same spending plan outlines service reductions costing less than what the consultants are making. The cuts went into effect last spring, and budget chief Jennifer Moon recently told county commissioners it would cost about $4.5 million to restore them in 2018. Another set of bus reductions, part of a $19 million savings plan, go into effect on Aug. 28.

Among the service reductions for Metrorail: the average wait between trains during peak Metrorail hours increasing from 5 minutes to 7 1/2 minutes — a 50 percent boost.

Sprouse, who drives to the North Dadeland Metrorail station each morning for her rail commute to downtown Miami, said she’s definitely noticed longer waits for trains. Added “headways” between trains give more passengers time to congregate on the platform, leading to fuller Metrorail cars. She said faulty air-conditioning systems often lead crammed passengers to ignore the “Emergency” label on the windows and open them for relief.

Transit officials say Miami-Dade is nearing the end of a particularly difficult era for Metrorail, which still uses the original cars purchased to launch the system in the 1980s. With replacement cars slated to start arriving this fall, the county says many of the maintenance issues slowing down the system will end.

Even so, the reduced schedule will remain in place unless county commissioners find a way to restore Metrorail funding by the time the final 2018 budget is approved in September.

“For years, this thing was an albatross,” Sprouse said from her seat in the standing-room-only Metrorail car. “Now that everyone is using it, they’re making it difficult to ride it. It doesn’t make sense.”

A Metrorail car became disabled while cars were on their way to the maintenance yard.