Facing a stalemate on the promise to expand Metrorail, Miami-Dade wants privatization proposals for any of the six transit corridors endorsed by the county's 2016 SMART Plan study.
The detailed solicitation document arrives as the official result of a March flare-up between the chairman of the County Commission and Miami-Dade's transportation department over the need for another year's worth of consultant fees to analyze the best transit modes for the SMART corridors. Chairman Esteban "Steve" Bovo said he wanted proposals from the private sector as a speedier alternative to the consultants' plans.
"One could look at it as shaking the trees, and seeing if the private players are serious enough to put their money where their mouths are," Bovo said Monday. "Maybe there's a way to shorten these studies."
Private transit developers still rely on government dollars to pay for projects and provide profit, but Miami-Dade could also use new toll lanes, development rights and other revenue sources to ease the pressure on the Miami-Dade budget. Transit ridership is dropping and bringing fare revenue down with it, leading to service cuts, frozen positions and outsourcing bus routes to private operators.
Developers have until July 27 to respond to the "request for information," which mostly asks for feedback on how Miami-Dade could use a "public-private" model to expand transit along the six SMART corridors. Those are commuting routes seen as the busiest in Miami-Dade, and ones that would expand Metrorail and Metromover into new markets.
Adding up to about 75 miles in all, the routes are: from the northern and southern ends of Metrorail to Miami Gardens and Florida City; east from Metromover in downtown Miami to South Beach; west from Miami International Airport along State Road 836 and from the Dadeland area to West Kendall; and a northeast route eyed as an extension of Tri-Rail along tracks owned by the new regional rail line, Brightline.
Miami-Dade and Florida are sharing the study costs, and the county expects to spend $18 million on consultants assigned to the South Dade, South Beach and SR 836 corridors. Those studies are needed to compete for state and federal funds, and the consultants are assigned to study a menu of specific transit options in each corridor — such as Metrorail, bus-rapid transit and monorail.
The county's request for information imposes no limits, which could have private developers proposing transit modes that wouldn't have been subjected to the kind of analysis needed for significant aid from Tallahassee or Washington.
"Leave it to the county to further complicate an already complicated situation," said Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, the former county property appraiser who is considered a likely candidate for Miami-Dade mayor in 2020. "You could be creating false hope for the public. Is this just a gesture to make it look like there is progress when there hasn't been?"
Lopez-Cantera's barb captures the weight transit carries in Miami-Dade politics, with traffic seen as a top gripe and the county's transit system losing riders amid heated complaints of poor service. Bovo has also privately discussed interest in mounting his own campaign to replace Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who is barred by term-limit rules from running again.
Monorail was one of the bright spots of Gimenez's recent trip to Asia, where he toured different transit options. He cited monorail as a potentially promising alternative since it's cheaper than heavier train modes, like Metrorail.
"Here we mainly know it as something that's used in Disney World," said Alice Bravo, Gimenez's transportation director. But "monorail is an interesting option." She cited Tokyo's monorail system as an example of its potential, since a monorail system is narrow enough to make it appealing for the MacArthur Causeway, the bridge that connects Miami with South Beach.
Gimenez and Bovo have clashed on the SMART Plan, with the mayor arguing Miami-Dade can't afford the rail expansion he had endorsed during his 2016 reelection campaign.
Citing advances in automated vehicles and their predicted upending of public transportation, Gimenez argued for using Miami-Dade's limited transit funds to create modern rapid-transit bus lines running north and south. The buses would offer group boarding and advanced ticket sales to mimic some of the conveniences of Metrorail, and run between express stations that could later service a light rail system if the county ever had the money to build it.
Alice Bravo, Gimenez's transportation director, acknowledged the request for developer interest in SMART projects came from Bovo's complaints. But she said the results will simply mean more feedback on Miami-Dade's transit challenges. The county can choose to explore them further or reject them.
"It's a way of making sure there's not something we're overlooking," she said. "We might get a good suggestion."
The results could puncture some of the hopes that the private sector will see enough profits in transportation that Miami-Dade won't have to come up with hundreds of millions of dollars just to extend transit in a single corridor. A 2016 study by consultants at AECOM predicted a $6 billion price tag for the SMART Plan, with a built-out rail system costing about $1 million a day to operate.
Developers are asked to answer a string of questions that touch on whether the private sector would support transit projects on the corridors, and hurdles the county might encounter in securing those deals. "In your opinion," the county request asks, "what are the indicators that would make these projects successful?"
One option that could come to light through the proposal process is allowing a company to operate a toll road and use the revenue from that to subsidize a new transit option. Al Maloof, a lobbyist who has worked with transportation clients, said the county's dedicated bus lanes along U.S. 1 would generate significant revenue if motorists could pay to drive a portion of them. The dollars from the "managed lane" — where the toll increases with use — could then pay for light rail or some other transit option there.
"Managed lanes will work in the South Dade Transit Way," Maloof said. "They are the most viable source of revenue generation of any solution that has been proposed thus far."
Under a "public-private" model, a for-profit company typically funds construction of the new transit system and then operates it under a county contract for 30 or 40 years. The government pays for both construction and operations with a single yearly fee that starts after the building is done — a model that can provide much more leverage to the county in the event of construction flaws or delays since the developer isn't paid until the work is finished.
But privatization also brings its critics. Miami-Dade last year outsourced 14 bus routes to private operator Transportation America as a cost-saving measure, with private-sector drivers earning much less than the county's unionized transit workers. County commissioners are voting to extend the contract Tuesday. In a letter, the Transportation Workers Union cited the wage gap as evidence of "trying to balance the Miami-Dade Transit budget on the backs of the poor."