Miami-Dade County

Mayor finds money to reduce waits for Metrorail cars and reverse other cuts

Passengers leave a Metrorail car at Miami International Airport. Earlier this year, Miami-Dade extended wait times between cars there and at stations throughout the county. Those cuts would be reversed under a new proposal by Mayor Carlos Gimenez.
Passengers leave a Metrorail car at Miami International Airport. Earlier this year, Miami-Dade extended wait times between cars there and at stations throughout the county. Those cuts would be reversed under a new proposal by Mayor Carlos Gimenez. MIAMI HERALD

Facing political pressure and passenger fury, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez on Wednesday announced a $13 million plan to reverse cuts to Metrorail and stave off further reductions in bus service in the county’s cash-strapped and increasingly unreliable transit system.

In a memo to county commissioners, Gimenez said he accepted demands that transit cuts be fixed before the board approves the mayor’s proposed $7.4 billion budget for the fiscal year that begins Sunday. A final vote is scheduled for Thursday evening, after a public hearing that begins at 5 p.m.

“At the First Budget Hearing, the Board made it clear that your priority for funding was public transportation,” Gimenez wrote. “I share your opinion that in order to be a truly resilient community now and in the future, we must solve our mobility issues.”

The mayor said Miami-Dade can eliminate some overlapping bus routes, expand limited schedules to all county holidays and redirect about $6 million in road fees to generate enough money to restore the system-wide cuts to Metrorail and cancel a new wave of service reductions for bus riders planned for the fall. While Metrorail passengers would enjoy reversed cuts, Miami-Dade would not undo the elimination of bus routes and stops imposed earlier this year in a cost-cutting move.

Metrorail would return to its schedule in place in May, before the county increased wait times for trains by 50 percent and eliminated about an hour at the start and end of each day’s service. For the county’s bus system, easily the most used mass-transit option in Miami-Dade, the Gimenez administration would call off a similar plan to increase wait times and shave operating hours.

With bus cuts from the spring already in place — and other service reductions needed to pay for what’s being restored — some commissioners stopped well short of embracing the Gimenez plan.

“It’s not even a wash yet,” Commissioner Jean Monestime said Wednesday at a committee meeting on the 2018 budget. “We’re still reducing service.”

Transit became a top budget fight in 2017, with Gimenez initially proposing a spending plan with a 6 percent cut in Metrorail at a time when county leaders are pushing to expand the rail system through the multibillion-dollar SMART Plan. The bus system faced an 8 percent cut, and transit officials said the agency was bracing for a $30 million reduction in spending.

A decline in ridership this year widened budget holes caused by a decline in the half-percent sales tax that subsidizes the transit system. The sales-tax decline caused problems elsewhere in the county budget, which includes no increase in property-tax rates. The 2018 plan extends an existing hiring freeze, and also includes increases in water fees and the costs of county trash pick-up for residents outside of city limits.

Whether Metrorail service actually improves under the proposed new funding plan is a separate question. When the county imposed the Metrorail cuts in May, transit officials blamed a pair of funding problems: The county’s half-percent sales tax for transportation wasn’t meeting revenue targets, and fare revenue from passengers on buses and trains was down.

But mechanical issues were increasing costs too, with the county’s aging fleet of Metrorail cars nearing their fifth decade of service and getting so old that Miami-Dade could no longer buy replacement parts. A new generation of cars is supposed to start arriving this fall, but the delivery schedule still has the county being stuck with original Metrorail cars through 2018.

Transit Alliance Miami, the advocacy group that led a campaign to restore transit cuts, said Wednesday the county needs to find more money for transportation in 2018 and “allocate it as it should be: to maintenance, frequency and capital improvements.”

In reversing past and planned transit cuts, the Gimenez administration would expand reduced bus hours to county holidays when many businesses remain open. Those include the upcoming Columbus Day on Monday, Oct. 9, and Presidents Day, the end of a busy weekend for tourism in February.

The schedule change would save about $2.6 million a year, and eliminating four routes that overlap with smaller “circulator” routes focused on neighborhood trips would save another $4.4 million. By tapping into fees developers pay for roadway improvements, Miami-Dade could free up nearly $6 million in transit-tax money that would otherwise go into reserves for the SMART Plan and other expansion projects.

Commissioner Dennis Moss noted the strategy runs counter to an earlier Gimenez pledge to wean the county off using the transit-tax to subsidize operations in order to free up the dollars for expanding Metrorail.

“This money is not going to expanding the system,” he said. “That’s the problem I’m having.”