For Jorge Bebelagua and Yanisel Barrial, the workday starts at 6:45 a.m. when they begin the trek to their jobs from their house in Homestead. They typically get home 12 to 13 hours later, which means they spend at least 20 hours per week, some 1,000 hours per year, commuting.
Stephen McCloskey’s journey commences in Kendall and ends up on Brickell Avenue.
Marcos Gazamanes travels from West Hialeah to downtown.
They all rely on Metrorail, the elevated rail line that was to be an extensive exoskeleton of public transport for greater Miami when it began running in 1984 but never grew much beyond the initial longitudinal spine stage. They say “rely” has become an inaccurate, almost comical term. They all tolerate Metrorail. They survive it. They curse it.
Metrorail makes them late. It makes them sweat. It makes them irritable and tired, at a cost of $28 per week.
They are subjected to chronic delays on sardine-can trains. Aging, dirty cars break down frequently, like jury-rigged jalopies. Doors that won’t open or won’t close taunt them. Wheezing air conditioners betray them. At the stations, escalators and elevators and ticket kiosks don’t work for days. Along the 25-mile system that carries riders on 22 million trips per year, unreliability is the one consistent feature.
“The saying among commuters is that it rains more inside Metrorail cars than outside,” Bebelagua said as he and Barrial stepped gingerly aboard the train at Dadeland South at 8:05 a.m. Thursday. Rain had leaked through the windows and cracked ceiling, and the floor and seats were wet. He and Barrial then waited 10 minutes for the train to depart.
With each stop, the cars got more crowded. Elbows bumped, toes were stepped on.
“You’d have to be an Olympic gymnast or a Cirque du Soleil contortionist to avoid contact during rush hour,” McCloskey said. He was right next to two guys who started fighting after they knocked into each other last week. “This was a full-out UFC brawl, with women screaming.”
When he leaves his law firm between 6 and 7 p.m., the trains pulling in to Brickell station are full and he has to wait for the next one, or the one after that. There used to be six wagons per train. Now there are only four.
“I’m scanning through the windows and passengers are looking at me like, ‘Don’t you dare squeeze on here,’” he said.
A recent breakdown caused McCloskey to miss a meeting, which he conducted over the phone from the train.
“Sorry, I was on Metrorail,” he explained when he got to the office, where his colleagues reacted with a combination of pity and disdain. “They looked at me like I was some sort of barbarian.”
Barrial said she’s surprised if her daily commute goes smoothly. Trains are supposed to run every four to seven minutes at peak times, but delays can be 20 minutes or more, which wreaks havoc with the last leg of her trip, on the notorious 249 circulator bus that is supposed to deliver her to Biscayne Bank on Bayshore Drive in Coconut Grove. She’s tapping on the transit system’s tracker app every morning and evening, trying to figure out where the elusive bus is and how long she’ll have to wait for it. Sometimes the drivers take breaks and duck into Walgreen’s at rush hour, leaving exasperated passengers in the lurch.
“I could write a book about the adventures every week,” Barrial said. “It’s shameful. We’re paying a lot in taxes and in fees for crappy service. You go to New York, Boston, Tokyo, Rome and they have efficient, clean systems. Why not here?”
Miami-Dade County promotes Metrorail with the slogan “Drive Less. Live More.” But riders who need the train say they die a little every day because of the wasted time. Gazamanes has been using Metrorail for 10 years. He said it has deteriorated markedly in 2017.
“It’s worse than ever,” he said. “It has a stigma: The attitude here is that public transit is for people who don’t drive nice cars, when the attitude should be that it is essential to quality of life. Should we describe it as a third-world system? Actually, cities in developing countries have better transit than we do.”
While the county is pinning hopes for improvement on the long-postponed rollout of new cars starting in late November and going through 2018, riders predict the shiny updated equipment will be a bandaid, not an antidote. It’s like Miami is afflicted with a degenerative disease that is steadily shutting down mobility from the core to the extremities. Driving a car is pure torture and an unsustainable mode of transportation on Miami’s perpetually clogged roads. Public transit could be the answer but it has not kept pace with population growth.
Mayor Carlos Gimenez can’t seem to make a commitment. A year ago, he ran on a platform of improving mass transit, of finally injecting an inadequate system with muscle and vision. He touted the SMART Plan and six new rail lines that would cost $6 billion. Then he abruptly switched into reverse. He concluded the county — which already relies on a special half-cent sales tax approved by voters in 2002 to expand Metrorail but which only serves to subsidize operations — did not and would never have enough money to extend rail, which he called “19th-century technology.” Maybe high-tech buses would do the trick. He took another step back last month and attempted to cut the transit budget, then restored it after commissioners objected.
Back to square one: The same old problems, ridership declines of about 6 percent on Metrorail, 10 percent on buses. Commuters are fed up. Bebelagua, a regular at county planning meetings, has initiated an online petition to fire transit chief Alice Bravo because she is unresponsive to mounting complaints. (Bravo did not return a call seeking comment.)
“Aren’t we told constantly that Miami is a world-class city? Well, then mass transit can’t be treated like a line item. It’s an investment,” McCloskey said. “We’re not expecting to ride in a Cadillac. But we are expecting to get from point A to point B under reasonable conditions. When I first started using Metrorail, I thought it was genius. It still has potential. They’ve just got to decide to build on it.”
The panorama of Miami from the Metrorail tracks: Great plains of tarred and puddled mosquito-breeding rooftops planted with squat gray air conditioning units as far as the eye can see. The view out the windows documents thoughtless zoning: Strip malls, warehouses, car repair garages, junkyards, tacky signage, traffic-choked streets. Paris it is not.
One drab station is indistinguishable from the next. There’s little or no public art to enliven the spaces and lend personality to the neighborhoods. None of the street musicians you see in New York or Chicago or Washington, D.C.
A critical state report cited a shortage of functioning cars (recommending 84 instead of the county’s goal of 60), staff vacancies and lowered operational standards at Metrorail and warned that new cars “cannot be recognized as an acceptable solution to these concerns.”
Metrorail has a retro vibe, but instead of hip it feels neglected. Metrorail is no civic engine; it’s merely functional. Except when it malfunctions. Which, according to commuters, is too often.
“Please, write something on our behalf,” a plaintive voice calls out from the disembarking crowd at Government Center. She noticed a Miami Herald reporter and photographer on the train. “There’s a lot of us and we deserve better.”
Take Randy Raymond. He’s a pharmacologist who lives in Kendall and works at the University of Miami’s medical complex near the Civic Center stop. During a recent train breakdown, he had to get off and take Uber.
“It feels like we’re stuck in the 1980s because it was never really engineered for the future,” he said. “It still doesn’t go to Miami Beach or Kendall or South Dade.
”New York, D.C., even Prague have amazing systems compared to Miami.“
Take Harris Jones, who rides from Allapattah to Dadeland South to work at Baptist Hospital in West Kendall. He brings a bike to aid his commute.
”Very mediocre and inconsistent,” he said. “And I work the night shift so I’m riding off hours.”
Bebelagua takes Metromover from Government Center to his office at the Wells Fargo Center and said he encounters problems 90 percent of the time. At the station he pointed to an escalator that was broken for five days last week. As he crossed Brickell, he felt a pang of sympathy for drivers backed up by the Brickell drawbridge, incongruously raised at 9 a.m., adding to the snarl.
“Getting to and from work in Miami is a challenge and you have to psych yourself up to face it each day,” he said.
McCloskey recalled the time it took him three hours to get to work when a train got stranded on the tracks, followed by a Metromover breakdown and a long walk.
“I arrived as if I’d just run the ‘Amazing Race,’” he said. “Sometimes I’ll see a fellow rider at lunch, and we nod across the room like we are brothers in arms: ‘Hey, we made it in today.’”