Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez had pitched an experimental Chinese “trackless train” as a potential game-changing alternative to expanding Metrorail farther into the suburbs, but seeing a prototype in person left him well short of enthusiastic.
“It was all right,” Gimenez said Wednesday, a day after returning from a two-week Asia tour that included a visit to the Chinese factory making an extended rubber-wheeled, battery-powered vehicle sometimes billed as a “virtual train” suitable for roadways. “I wasn’t as impressed as I thought I would be.”
Gimenez emphasized he wasn’t ready to give up on the technology as a far cheaper substitute to the billion-dollar-plus option of expanding Metrorail north to the Broward County line and south to Florida City. But his comments represented a significant shift for Gimenez, who last fall presented promotional footage of the vehicle to a Miami business group and touted the option as “a solution we can implement now.”
“It looks like a train,” he told the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce on Oct. 25. “I don’t think that the people of Miami-Dade County are going to have a big problem getting on something like that.”
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Actually riding in the vehicle was another matter. He toured a facility by the vehicle’s maker, CRRC, in Zhuzhou on March 15 with three county commissioners, aides and department heads, and two lobbyists who helped run his 2016 reelection campaign. Gimenez said the prototype he rode wasn’t the kind of gleaming vehicle portrayed in the video, was operated by a driver instead of being autonomous and was unable to go very fast given the confines of the test track.
“It has potential, but it left me wanting,” he said. “All they did was put rubber wheels where the train track would go.”
Gimenez’s lukewarm review of the trackless train is bound to cheer supporters of expanding Metrorail in a debate that has the mayor on one side and County Commission Chairman Esteban “Steve” Bovo on the other. Bovo, who declined to join the Asia trip, said he didn’t want conceptual transit ideas to stall Miami-Dade in its pursuit of a solution to gridlock.
“Are we going to put our money where our mouth is and invest in some sort of mass transit?” he said. “And not be stuck with the excuse that we’re going to wait for technology to solve the issue?”
For County Commissioner Audrey Edmonson, a skeptic of CRRC’s trackless pitch before the trip, riding on the demo vehicle in China made her rethink her position. She said it combines the ease of implementation of a bus with the look of a train. “I call it the bus train. Because it’s on wheels,” she said. “Once I saw it and was able to get on it — it looks like a train for those who really want a train.”
While the trackless-train demo was just one of dozens of stops on an extended Asia tour for Gimenez and a delegation of 50-plus government and private-sector executives, it was the most anticipated stop given the vehicle’s high-profile role in the Metrorail debate.
The visit to CRRC’s Zhuzhou facility also was scheduled on an exclusive leg of the trade mission, days before more than two dozen participants from the private sector — some paying as much as $1,200 per person to participate, on top of travel expenses — joined the government officials in Beijing on Sunday, March 18.
There were two notable exceptions to the government-only guest list in Zhuzhou: Jesse Manzano-Plaza, Gimenez’s 2016 campaign manager and a lobbyist, and Ralph Garcia-Toledo, Gimenez’s finance chairman for the reelection effort and a lobbyist for his own firm, G-T Construction, which has been employed as a subcontractor on multiple county projects.
Both men acknowledge meeting at least once with CRRC executives during an Atlanta transportation conference, but say they aren’t helping the Chinese company pursue county business. The two were the only private-sector executives from the Miami delegation who joined the county officials on the trackless-train demo, according to accounts from multiple participants and an updated attendance list released by the mayor’s office Thursday.
Neither man was included on a list of 13 Zhuzhou attendees released by the mayor’s office last week at the request of the Miami Herald. A Gimenez spokeswoman said that was an oversight. Their presence on the trackless-train tour was notable, given the county’s stated plan to accommodate CRRC’s wishes for a closed-door event reserved for county leaders and employees, according to the Miami-Dade official who organized the trade mission.
“These people are very delicate about inviting a large group of people,” Manny Gonzalez, the county’s full-time chief of international trade, said of CRRC, the largest government-owned train maker in China. “They wanted to make sure it was public sector people, not private sector people.”
Garcia-Toledo explained his presence on the tour through his connections to Genting, the Malaysian resort company. Genting held two receptions for the Miami-Dade officials on company cruise ships docked in Hong Kong after the tour of the train facility. That included a discussion between Gimenez and Genting CEO Lim Kok Thay about the company investing in the county’s long-stalled plan to connect downtown Miami with South Beach through a rail system called Baylink, Gimenez said.
Genting employs Manzano-Plaza as a lobbyist and Garcia-Toledo’s firm as a subcontractor on a hotel project it has planned over a county bus stop in downtown Miami, next to land where it hopes to build a waterfront casino. Genting’s land off of I-395 sits in roughly the area where Baylink would likely connect with the mainland.
In an interview, Garcia-Toledo said he asked Genting to use its Chinese ties to arrange the CRRC tour on behalf of Gimenez. “Genting set that up,” Garcia-Toledo said.
Gimenez and a Genting spokesman both confirmed Garcia-Toledo’s account. “Resorts World knew I wanted to see that train,” Gimenez said, referring to Genting’s hotel subsidiary. A request for comment from CRRC’s Massachusetts office was not returned on Thursday.
It’s unclear why Gimenez would need Genting’s help setting up the county visit to Zhuzhou.
Gimenez met with senior CRRC executives from the company’s Massachusetts office on Aug. 22, weeks after the mayor debuted a $534 million plan to bring high-tech “rapid transit” buses to 27th Avenue on the north and the county busway on the south as a cheaper alternative to expanding Metrorail. Two of those executives, Jing Jing and Shopping Sun, are now registered to lobby in Miami-Dade. Visitor logs show an executive from CH2M Hill, Garcia-Toledo’s largest client, also attended the CRRC meeting with Gimenez in the mayor’s Miami office.
If Genting helped set up the trackless-train visit, Miami-Dade appeared able to set up several interactions with CRRC once the official trade mission began in Beijing, including a March 21 visit to a CRRC transit facility in Sifang. Garcia-Toledo said he had nothing to do with the other CRRC stops on the county’s China trip.
Gonzalez’s International Trade office had communications with CRRC in setting up the other company events in China for the expanded delegation’s tour, including tapping the Chinese company as the sponsor of a March 19 reception in Beijing with the U.S. ambassador to China, Terry Branstad according to emails obtained through a public records request.
“Did not know our mayor was that popular (lol),” Gonzalez wrote in a Feb. 14 email to embassy official Scott Pozil, joking about how CRRC and another Chinese company were willing to pay for the county party.
In fact, CRRC’s request to Gonzalez to switch the location of the Branstad reception to a CRRC office in Beijing threatened to cost the delegation a visit with the ambassador. “I need to go back to the Ambassador to seek his approval since you have changed the event,” Pozil wrote Gonzalez on March 14. (Branstad ended up sticking with the event.)
Edmonson, the county commissioner, said she assumed Garcia-Toledo and Manzano-Plaza were representing CRRC when she saw them as the only nongovernment visitors at the trackless-train demonstration. “That’s the impression I got, even though it was not stated,” she said.
Both men denied connections with CRRC, saying their role was limited to representing Genting during the first leg of the trip. “I am not working with CRRC,” Garcia-Toledo said, “nor am I working with CRRC at this time to get them a county contract.” Privately, Genting representatives said CRRC is such a large conglomerate that it was easier for Genting to use its Chinese contacts to set up the tour than it was to go through CRRC’s Boston office.
Whether CRRC will ever get the chance to compete for county dollars remains very much in doubt.
Gimenez has about 2 1/2 years remaining in his final term in office, and faces a County Commission that has already taken a symbolic vote in favor of expanding Metrorail at street level to the north and south. But with Miami-Dade already cutting service on its existing transit system to save money, county finances don’t yet show a way to pay for an even larger Metrorail system. Even the most optimistic forecast pitched by a transportation board that Bovo leads showed an $18 million yearly funding gap, and that’s with significant aid from Florida or Washington.
Gimenez said his trip through China and Japan did not change his overall position on the future of Miami-Dade transit.
He wants to build stations to the north and south that would service rapid-transit buses — the less-hyped version of a “trackless” train on wheels — and design the structures so that they could be converted to rail depots if county leaders ever found a way to fund an expansion of Metrorail.
He did say his tours through several Chinese and Japanese rail facilities did turn him onto one potentially promising transit mode for Miami: monorail.
“We talked about monorail,” he said. “It’s cheaper than heavy rail.”
Gimenez said it’s easy to be enticed by the thriving rail systems in Japan, where the Tokyo commuter trains carry more than 7 million people each day. (Metrorail in Miami recorded about 55,000 passengers each day last year.) But with Miami-Dade’s suburban landscape and far smaller population, Gimenez said his Asia travels helped reinforce the daunting economics of rail.
“There are just different scales over there,” he said. “If I were the mayor of Tokyo, I would be adding rail lines.”