With Metrorail increasingly unreliable and elected leaders demanding billions for expanded service, Miami-Dade’s transit union led a “transit march” up U.S. 1 on Monday, protesting looming bus cuts and broken promises on transportation.
More than 100 people marched between Cutler Bay and Palmetto Bay. The path was about eight miles from the nearest Metrorail station but right along the new rail route first promised voters in 2002 when Miami-Dade leaders secured a new half-percent sales tax for transportation in a countywide referendum. Even though the tax generates more than $200 million a year, it failed to produce more than three miles of extra track for Metrorail.
“Many people have gone to their graves with the promise of rail coming to South Dade,” said Rep. Kionne McGhee, D-Miami, as he addressed the crowd of mostly union members gathered at the Cutler Bay Town Hall before the march. “Forget about the revolution they promised. Let’s get rid of that delusion.”
The event captured the push-and-pull of Miami-Dade’s current transit debate, which peaked two weeks ago when Mayor Carlos Gimenez backed off a plan to cut millions from the Metrorail to absorb lower fare and tax revenues in a 2018 budget with another year of flat property-tax rates.
While Gimenez vowed to undo Metrorail service cuts imposed earlier in the year, his budget kept in place prior cuts to bus routes. His spending proposal also included additional bus cuts to restore the Metrorail funding, and county commissioners must approve the eliminated routes for the savings to materialize in the coming months.
McGhee was the only elected official at the rally to emphasize the need for more funding for the county’s bus routes. The others, including Commission Chairman Esteban “Steve” Bovo, hammered on the need to fulfill the original promise in the 2002 referendum to extend rail south to Florida City. Asked after his remarks if he opposed cutting bus routes, he said: “Sometimes, you’ve got to contract to expand.”
Union members in the crowd held signs protesting the planned cuts: “Stop Taking My Only Way to Work: Route 70” and “We Deserve Public Transportation Too.”
The Gimenez administration did eliminate some under-used bus stops and routes with the cuts imposed last summer, which the County Commission approved. This fall, it proposes eliminating two more: Route 249 in Coconut Grove and Route 70 in South Dade. The county’s Transportation Department says about 2,200 people ride those buses on a typical week day, but that both routes overlap with other bus options.
Gimenez has taken heat from Bovo and others for proposing cutting-edge bus options for South Dade instead of rail, offering a $534 million plan for rail-like bus depots on dedicated lanes connecting Metrorail to the southern and northern parts of Miami-Dade. South Dade already has dedicated lanes, widely known as the Busway, and Miami-Dade would need to create them on the northern route. During his reelection bid last year, Gimenez filmed a campaign ad on a Metrorail car with the headline “More Rail Lines.” But he recently called trains “19th century technology” that will be made obsolete by autonomous vehicles.
On Monday night, Gimenez communications chief Michael Hernández issued a statement that said: “The mayor is committed to expanding mass transit throughout Miami-Dade County, but he will not be a typical politician and make promises he can’t keep. He will propose what experts conclude is the most appropriate form of transit for the South Dade Transit Way and one that county taxpayers can afford.”
Monday’s march wound about two miles to Palmetto Bay, stopping some traffic along the way. County police blocked off-ramps from Florida’s Turnpike to allow the marchers to pass at intersections, and a pick-up truck with a deejay and speaker blocked one northbound lane of U.S. 1 during the second half of the march.
Deltravis Williams, 39, who described himself as a Navy veteran, said he took the 38 bus to the protest and is a frequent bus rider in Miami-Dade. He said it was a dismal way to travel.
“Those buses have roaches in them,” he said. “I’ve been on four buses in the last year that broke down on the Busway.”
The transit union is fighting privatization options that would allow the county to save millions by outsourcing some routes to shuttle companies. And the Gimenez administration points to union perks, absenteeism and hiring requirements as a reason why the system is so expensive to run.
Clarence Washington, president of the transit union, told the crowd that the county needs to finally make transit a priority.
“We aren’t here just for us,” he said. “We are here for all those people we carry every day.”