Miami-Dade County

Bay Link group balks at study, but urges cities to get started with light-rail system

An earlier rendering of Bay Link running along Miami Beach’s Washington Avenue.
An earlier rendering of Bay Link running along Miami Beach’s Washington Avenue. Metropolitan Planning Organization

Government leaders don’t want to pursue federal money for the $532 million Bay Link project, and have opted to press pause on a key study in favor of Miami and Miami Beach pursuing their parts of the light-rail system.

A Bay Link task force that includes the cities’ mayors and Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez on Monday declined to accept a consultant’s request to move forward with a lengthy environmental study needed for Washington to help pay for a rail system linking Miami with Miami Beach. Instead, the group asked for a new plan that envisions Miami and Miami Beach separately studying the rail lines needed in both of their cities, with a cross-bay linkage getting its start later in the process.

Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine pushed the option, saying the decades-old Bay Link effort had dragged on long enough. He didn’t want to pursue a slow-moving study in order to start an even lengthier chase of federal dollars that ultimately may not arrive.

“We have a chance of over-thinking this thing to death. And doing nothing — which seems to be par for the course,” Levine said in asking for the go-ahead to start planning the Miami Beach segment of Bay Link. A consultant’s time line assumes four years for the federal study process, which includes public hearings.

“I don’t have a problem with that,” Gimenez said. “Because you’re actually getting something done.”

The five-member group, which includes county commissioners Bruno Barreiro and Xavier Suarez, had already opted against pursuing federal money because of the time and complications involved. But transportation officials and consultants Monday warned against closing the door completely, since Washington would pick up half of the tab if it approved Bay Link.

“I’m scratching my head,” said Gus Pego, the state official that heads the transportation district covering Miami-Dade and Monroe counties. With $8.75 million already secured for the study, the three governments were each asked to contribute $417,000 to proceed with the environmental report.

José Abreu, the former Miami International Airport director now working for Bay Link consultant Gannett Fleming, also said a completed environmental study could open up the possibility of low-rate federal financing even if no Washington dollars came through. Should Miami-Dade seek a private company to build and operate Bay Link, the lack of a federal option could make it impossible to find a bidder, he said.

The Bay Link group ended up agreeing to consider approving the larger environmental study when they meet again in 90 days. Members told Pego to come back with a draft agreement that would allow Miami and Miami Beach to conduct less-intensive environmental studies on their city’s lines and design systems ultimately compatible with each other and a cross-bay link. Pego would also lay out more detailed parameters on the larger study that would keep Bay Link in the running for federal dollars and financing.

On Suarez’s suggestion, the group also endorsed the parameters for Bay Link itself: the route, the fact that it won’t share space with autos, and it will stop at 15 stations that “will be kept simple to keep costs down.”

For now, the Bay Link route being pursued starts in downtown Miami at NW 1st Avenue and Sixth Street, crosses the MacArthur Causeway and then enters Miami Beach on Fifth Street before heading north up Washington Avenue to the Miami Beach Convention Center. The estimated construction cost is $532 million, with an additional $22 million a year to operate it. Bay Link would run on underground electrical lines running along dedicated lanes on existing roads, either by narrowing the space for automobiles or by expanding the roadways.

There’s no established plan to pay for it. Consultants hired by Miami-Dade’s Metropolitan Planning Organization suggested tolls on the MacArthur and Julia Tuttle causeways, but the task force rejected that idea last year.

There’s interest in using a public-private financing model, where a private company pays to build and operate the system in exchange for regular payments from the government once Bay Link is underway. Gannett Fleming estimates an operator would require between $36 million and $54 million a year under that option.

Bay Link is part of a broader transportation plan endorsed by county voters when they adopted a half-percentage sales tax for transit projects in 2002. The budget estimates in that plan proved faulty, and most of the projects remain on the drawing board. Bay Link had the added challenge of drawing controversy in Miami Beach a decade ago.

With city leaders divided on the project, they asked voters to weigh in. The non-binding Miami Beach referendum endorsing Bay Link passed in 2004, but the project was mostly stalled until the county’s transportation board revived the concept in 2013.

Concerns about cost continue. In an interview, Levine said if he had “his druthers,” no light-rail would link Miami and Miami Beach. Instead, he’d like to explore a dedicated lane for an express bus running from both cities’ light-rail systems, with the possibility of the buses running in a tolled express lane where cars pay to avoid congestion.

Levine said he wasn’t opposed to the larger study needed for federal funding, but that his city’s financial contribution might change if there is overlap with its own Bay Link study. Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado took a similar tack, saying the numbers needed to be refined.

“In 90 days, we’ll decide,” he said.