Miami-Dade County

Miami’s Metrorail at 30: Promises kept, promises broken

Victor Montero rides Metrorail to work, to go shopping, to see friends and to exercise at the gym.

Metrorail is great, Montero says, but it could be better if it had lines to every possible destination in South Florida.

“If we want to be a world-class city, like New York, Paris or Madrid, we need expansion of the Metrorail system,” said Montero, who divides his time between Miami and Madrid. “In Madrid we have several lines. Metrorail needs many more lines that go to Homestead, to the Everglades, to Broward, to Miami Beach — especially to Miami Beach.”

Montero’s assessment echoed the views of other riders interviewed recently at University Station in Coral Gables. It was the first station to be built on the Metrorail system, which will mark its 30th anniversary on May 20.

When it opened at 6 a.m. May 20, 1984, Metrorail’s elevated trains ran only 11 miles, stopping at 10 stations from Overtown to Dadeland South. At the time, county officials promised a 52- or 54-mile system that would go to Miami International Airport, Miami Beach and other destinations, and carry more than 200,000 riders a day.

After three decades of operation, the system grew to just 25 miles, added only one line — to MIA — and has never carried 200,000 riders daily. Nevertheless, Metrorail today is not doing as badly as early critics predicted, when they derisively referred to it as Metrofail.

Metrorail hasn’t failed, but neither has it delivered on the promises of its early proponents. Over time, though, it has become indispensable to thousands of people who rely on public transit either because they cannot afford a car, don’t have a driver’s license or simply prefer trains and buses.

“Thirty years is a pearl anniversary,” said Miami-Dade Transit Director Ysela Llort. “Metrorail has truly been a pearl in Miami’s growth and development.”

In an overall assessment, Llort said the system has sparked development and attracted more and more riders.

“Over the past few years, we’ve seen a surge of new developments going up near our rail line, and we continue to see this trend,” she said. “So I would say that because of these new developments, and our steady increase in Metrorail ridership, Metrorail has been a success.”

After the 2008 economic crisis left many without jobs and forced companies and governments to trim or freeze salaries, ridership increased dramatically on Metrorail and other mass transit systems. The increase in the number of undocumented immigrants, who cannot apply for a driver’s license, has also boosted ridership.

Today, average weekday ridership stands at more than 70,000 — a vast improvement over the scant 6,000 average daily trips the system reported shortly after it opened.

After 30 years on the tracks, Metrorail has become an established component of Miami-Dade’s transit services, carrying as many passengers as the more-sober transportation experts predicted it would after several decades of operation.

“It’s like building an apartment building on spec,” José Gómez Ibañez, a Harvard University mass-transit expert, told the Miami Herald in 1985, a year after Metrorail began operating. “It sits vacant for 10 years, or 20 or 30.”

While Metrorail did not ride vacant for decades, it was only after its second decade of operation, in 2004, that ridership began increasing steadily. By the end of 1984, average daily ridership had risen to about 16,000. Twenty years later, it stood at almost 52,000. And in 2008, average daily ridership shot up to more than 62,000.

The increase has continued. Figures for March 2014 show average daily ridership at 76,500.

“In February of this year, we had close to two million people pass through our Metrorail fare gates,” Llort said. “When we compared the ridership figures of the first quarter of 2010 to 2014, we saw an increase of almost 25 percent in our Metrorail ridership. That’s an impressive number in terms of increased use. With our new extension to Miami International Airport, and the transportation connections developing in downtown Miami, we expect this number to continue to increase.”

But even as Metrorail becomes more necessary, it is unlikely that any more lines will be built anytime soon. The county does not have the hundreds of millions of dollars necessary to build such expensive projects. In addition, the federal government — which traditionally has funded big transportation projects — lacks the means to help systems such as Metrorail expand.

As a result, Metrorail will probably remain a two-line system for years to come. Maintenance and improvements should assure at least another 30 years of operation.

In November 2012, Miami-Dade commissioners awarded a $313.8 million contract to an Italian company, AnsaldoBreda, to supply 136 new Metrorail cars to replace the original cars, which are still rolling.

“The new trains are currently in the design phase,” Llort said. “The first prototype trains will be arriving by late 2015. Once those trains are tested and accepted, they will be placed in regular service, which will be in 2016. The last trains are scheduled to be delivered and placed in service by 2018.”

To celebrate 30 years of Metrorail, Miami-Dade Transit will host a party for Metrorail riders at the Government Center station downtown. The celebration will take place near the Metrorail fare gates on the second level from 7 to 9 a.m. May 20. Festivities will include music, giveaways and the raffling of a few transit passes.

The concept of Metrorail emerged from a 1964 feasibility study on mass transit for Dade County. Four years later, an engineering firm began actual planning.

When voters in 1972 approved a $135.2 million bond issue, Metrorail became more of a reality — despite fierce opposition spearheaded by one man, Miami lawyer Richard Friedman.

In 1978, Friedman was instrumental in organizing an anti-transit movement called Stop Transit Over People, or STOP, which led to a referendum that came close to derailing the project. Friedman called the project the “Great Elevated Train Robbery.”

Groundbreaking took place June 7, 1979, at the site where University Station stands across from the University of Miami.

“I grew up using Metrorail,” said Karla Damian, an MDT spokeswoman recently interviewed at the station.

The groundbreaking ceremony at University Station took place on Damian’s ninth birthday, which she celebrated in El Salvador. Damian and her family moved to Miami in February 1980. As an adult, Damian joined MDT because her first boyfriend was transit-dependent and, she said, she wanted to help others like him.

“Believe it or not,” she said, “I applied for this job because I wanted to help others like him who depend on transit to get around. So, in a sense, I started working here out of love and service.”

Five years after the groundbreaking, Metrorail opened to the public — but not without first dealing with a long string of mishaps, construction flaws, cost overruns, recriminations, second thoughts and outrageous promises. Perhaps the most serious issues were the construction problems.

A secret report prepared by the federal Urban Mass Transit Administration in June 1983, obtained first by the Miami Herald, forced administrators to postpone Metrorail’s planned Dec. 18, 1983, opening until problems were fixed.

At the time, County Manager Merrett Stierheim called the report a “hatchet job.”

In a recent interview, Stierheim — who oversaw construction and the early operation of Metrorail — recalled the first ride and provided his own assessment of the system’s performance.

“The truth is that Metrorail is one of the best and safest transit systems in the world,” he said. “Given the public scrutiny, most everyone who has been associated with it should receive a pat on the back. I’m proud of the role that I played in bringing it about.”

On opening day, ridership exceeded planners’ wildest expectations: about 150,000 riders. But that was an isolated event, sparked by curiosity about the system. That ridership figure would not be matched for another three decades, until South Floridians celebrated the Miami Heat as NBA champions in June 2013, when more than 117,000 passed through Metrorail’s gates.

With the opening on May 19, 1985, of additional stations on the original track, Metrorail ridership rose from 16,000 daily trips by the end of 1984 to about 20,000 daily trips and stayed that way for years. The stagnant ridership provided grist for Metrorail’s many critics, including then-President Ronald Reagan.

“A billion-dollar mistake,” Reagan called Metrorail. “It would have been a lot cheaper to buy everyone a limousine.”

It wasn’t until 2003 that a new station and a small extension of the original track were added. With that, Metrorail, which begins at Dadeland South, near the southern end of the Palmetto Expressway, ends at Palmetto Station, near a northern segment of the same highway.

Nine years later, Metrorail finally added a second line.

The Orange Line to MIA is now the system’s crown jewel.

Popular with airport workers and international travelers, the line starts and ends at Metrorail’s newest station, a state-of-the-art facility full of digital screens announcing train and flight schedules.

“Today, Metrorail connects to one of the most important and biggest economic engines in Miami-Dade County — Miami International Airport,” said Llort, the MDT director. “Every business, hotel, and housing development near our rail line now has an easy connection to MIA.”