This spring was once slated for a milestone in Miami-Dade County’s renewed effort to expand Metrorail, with transit consultants facing a March deadline to deliver recommendations on where new rail lines made sense and where cheaper alternatives were unavoidable.
But that milestone is set to come and go after the county’s transportation department requested another year of funding for the consultants studying transit options across Miami-Dade under the SMART Plan process.
County commissioners reluctantly approved the 12-month extension on Tuesday, but not before venting amazement and despair at the delay for reports needed before the commission can even begin turning the SMART blueprint into actual transit projects.
“We are obviously doing a disservice to the public,” said Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava. “I understood we would have reports by March, and a [SMART Plan] vote in April.”
The extension gives three consulting firms until March 2019 to finish their recommendations on the county’s SMART transit plan under engineering contracts worth about $33 million in all. The five-year agreements cover tasks other than the SMART studies, and the county says the three SMART studies should cost about $18 million.
The firms are exploring rail and other alternatives for three SMART corridors — the busway in South Dade, the commuting route that runs east-west along the Dolphin Expressway, and the MacArthur Causeway linking Miami with South Beach. When the contracts went up for their initial approval last year, county commissioners imposed a deadline by granting spending authority on the SMART corridors only through March. Now the administration wants to extend the authority through March 2019.
“I said we’d push,” Transportation director Alice Bravo said of the discussions when the deadline was set in 2017. “But there are a lot of factors we don’t control.”
The consultant studies are at the heart of the SMART Plan, which launched in 2016 as a reset of the county’s long-stalled planning process for expanding Metrorail and other transit options. Miami-Dade promised a historic expansion of Metrorail and its bus system during a 2002 referendum for a new half-percent sales tax dedicated to transit and roads. The SMART plan identified six commuting corridors that mostly matched the promised new rail routes in the 2002 tax campaign, with the aim of hiring consultants to make fresh recommendations on the best transit modes for each segment.
Miami-Dade can’t pursue state or federal rail dollars without the reports, which are required under Washington’s regulatory rules. So receiving the extensive paperwork really marks the starting point for the true SMART debate. But with even the paperwork taking months or a year longer than hoped, commissioners saw the news as a bad omen for the projects in general.
“This is, as far as I am concerned, ridiculous. We’ve had every single corridor studied,” said Chairman Esteban “Steve” Bovo, the lone critic of the SMART Plan during its 2016 launch, when he stacked past transit studies on the dais to warn against hiring more consultants. “And yet nothing happens. Nothing happens. And here we are back again.”
Commissioner Xavier Suarez described the session as one of the most discouraging he has experienced during the last few years of Miami-Dade’s renewed transit debate.
“The tone I heard today was more despondent than I can remember,” he said. “It was very defeatist.”
In an interview, Bravo said there was some initial hope that Miami-Dade could win approval for a less extensive review of the various rail impacts required for federal transit funds — studies that include vibration analyses, potential effects on historic structures along the proposed routes, wetland risks, and maximum noise levels. But Bravo said regulators in Washington are requiring a more detailed review, which she thinks can be completed as early as the end of 2018 for the busway route. The studies of the two east-west routes — one to the western suburbs and one to South Beach — are expected to be done by the summer of 2019, according to department estimates.
Miami-Dade’s Transportation department did not promise to have its SMART studies done within a year when it submitted the consultant contracts for county approval under a five-year agreement that covers other tasks outside of the SMART blueprint. Bovo imposed the one-year spending limit through a committee vote in March 2017, and he included language allowing the department to return to the board for extensions.
“If we want to see something happen,” Bovo said then, “we need to put the pedal to the metal.” Bravo said her department would tell the consultants to respect Bovo’s timeline. “We’re going to tell them we need to figure out how to work with the state and the federal government to do this in a year,” she said.
Florida’s Department of Transportation is conducting studies on the other three SMART corridors — north from Miami to the Broward County line; northeast from Miami to Aventura; and in the Kendall area. A department spokeswoman said Tuesday the three state-funded studies are expected to be finished by the end of 2018.
While the reports will offer recommendations on the wisest transit mode for each corridor, that hasn’t stopped elected officials from moving forward with their own plans. Mayor Carlos Gimenez last year proposed rapid-transit bus systems for the north and south corridors, while a county transportation board dominated by Miami-Dade commissioners took a symbolic vote in September to endorse Metrorail for the same routes.
Actually pursuing new transit projects on any corridor would require more high-stakes, definitive votes. So would applying for the state and federal dollars crucial for a SMART plan estimated by one county-funded engineering study to cost $6 billion. The consultant studies, which include extensive public hearings and a range of engineering reports, are required for Miami-Dade to compete for those outside dollars.
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, the Miami Republican who chairs the appropriations subcommittee that oversees federal transportation funding, has criticized Miami-Dade for not reaching a quicker consensus on an ambitious transportation project.
“Is it bus or is it rail? There’s a huge difference,” Diaz-Balart said in a recent interview. “I will support whatever they come up with. Right now, they’re not even in consideration [for federal dollars for the SMART plan]. I could be helpful to them to try and expedite it. But it’s not a short process.”