Miami-Dade County

Relief for Metrorail passengers not coming until 2018, despite larger budget

Denise Perez on a full Metrorail car taking her south from the Brickell station during a recent afternoon during rush hour. Miami-Dade has promised to narrow the wait times between cars as a way to ease overcrowding, but the relief isn’t planned until January.
Denise Perez on a full Metrorail car taking her south from the Brickell station during a recent afternoon during rush hour. Miami-Dade has promised to narrow the wait times between cars as a way to ease overcrowding, but the relief isn’t planned until January. DOUGLAS HANKS

The last-minute budget reprieve Metrorail won from Miami-Dade County in September hasn’t delivered the promised fixes, including shorter waits between trains and later operating hours. County administrators say they need a few months to adjust scheduling and cobble together enough spare parts of the extra trains needed to accommodate more frequent arrivals and longer hours.

“Since March, we’ve been working on this frequency,” Alice Bravo, the county’s transit director, said of the pared-down schedule implemented last spring to cut costs. “We have trains that have not been worked on since March. To have the extra hours … we have to get the trains up and running again.”

Bravo’s explanation captures the state of crisis at Metrorail, an aging rail system with more trains out of service on any given day than in service. It’s also a system with only about two-thirds of the trains it needs to run at full capacity, meaning the extra $15 million put back into the transit budget on Oct. 1 hasn’t allowed Miami-Dade to ease congestion at the stations. Roughly $5 million of that was slotted for Metrorail.

The current shortcomings raise the stakes for the new era in Metrorail reliability that has been promised pending the arrival of the first replacement cars in the rail system’s history. The first four-car train is expected to begin serving passengers in late November, a milestone for a system still using the original cars that rolled down the tracks when launched in 1984. Metrorail is slated to have more new cars in service than old ones by the summer of 2018, with the full fleet replacement finished by 2019. Miami-Dade is borrowing more than $350 million for the long-promised upgrade.

The existing cars are so old that Miami-Dade has struggled to purchase replacement parts. An Oct. 31 maintenance report tells the story: 52 cars were available for service, but 92 were listed as unavailable. Bravo said Miami-Dade is accelerating the purchase of new parts, with the extra dollars helping the process.

Union rules also delay implementing new schedules, since transit administrators must offer various routes to operators based on seniority. Jeffery Mitchell, the union leader assigned to Metrorail workers, said the union has received notice of new shifts for an expanded schedule.

Miami-Dade says it plans to reverse the Metrorail cuts in mid-January, a move that would add about 30 minutes to operations each day and narrow official wait times between trains at rush hour from seven-and-a-half minutes to five minutes for most stations. Also, the Metrorail trains to Miami International Airport would arrive every 15 minutes on weekends, instead of every 30 minutes.

With fewer trains to operate, and a budget squeeze brought on by lower fare revenue and a decline in the sales tax that helps subsidize transit, Miami-Dade cut Metrorail hours in March and extended the wait between trains. Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s proposed transit budget for 2018 extended the cuts, but county commissioners insisted enough money be restored to reverse the Metrorail service reductions. Gimenez agreed, and the budget year that began Oct. 1 included about $15 million extra for both Metrorail and the county’s bus system.

Longer waits between trains has led to growing crowds of commuters waiting for trains at rush hour, with passengers forced to cram into cars already filled with passengers.

“There’s zero personal space,” said Richard Guajardo as he waited at the Brickell Metrorail station with co-workers from a Miami-based trade group. Display boards showed a 14-minute wait for the next southbound train shortly after 5 p.m. When it arrived, Guajardo and crew from the Association of Certified Anti-Money Laundering Specialists wedged themselves into the void left by the door when other passengers exited. Thickets of bodies prevented them from wedging in any farther. “We used to have trains every three minutes,” he said.

At the Coconut Grove stop, a departing passenger had so much trouble finding a path to the door that she asked the crowd: “Can you get out so we can get off?” Nobody obliged.

Denise Perez said full trains in the morning sometimes cause her to give up and wait for the next one as she makes her way north to Brickell and her job at the anti-laundering group.

“The good thing is,” she said, “it’s a big group of us that takes Metrorail. So when you’re late, everybody is late.”

As a group that commutes together by rail, Perez, Guajardo and coworker Joyce Sarmiento say they’re eager to see the new trains arrive and deliver their promised relief on waiting times and overcrowding.

“We needed them three months ago,” Sarmiento said.

Miami-Dade needs millions from the Trump administration to expand Metrorail. The president’s transportation chief came to Miami and said: “Resources are an issue.”