Miami-Dade County

Express bus to South Beach? Tri-Rail in Design District? New transit plans in the works

A view of people waiting at Miami Airport Tri-Rail Station in Miami on Friday, November 6, 2015.
A view of people waiting at Miami Airport Tri-Rail Station in Miami on Friday, November 6, 2015. dsantiago@elnuevoherald.com

Isabel Fernandez could use an easier way to get around car-centric Miami.

One of many seniors who don't drive or own a car, she has to rely on family members or the bus to move around her neighborhood in Flagami. But the prospect of being able to use a free, publicly-funded trolley to get to Publix or Walmart has her excited.

"I love the idea," she said. "We really need it, because there are a lot of seniors that live around here."

Fernandez would benefit from a Flagami Trolley, a planned expansion of Miami's inter-city transit system that could be further bolstered by the county under a new program that aims to get people out of cars and onto public transportation.

While Miami-Dade spends time and millions of dollars studying the best way to implement a $3 to $6 billion plan to beef up mass transit across the county, a menu of newly proposed smaller-scale transit projects could make a big difference at a lower cost.

In the next few years, commuters might be able to board a Tri-Rail train at a platform between the Design District and Midtown, connecting a busy Miami corridor to downtown. Service workers might be able to travel on an express bus from Golden Glades and Allapattah to their jobs at Miami Beach hotels. Trolleys could take riders around Flagami and move Florida International University students from campus to the Metrorail station in Doral.

These are among the 11 projects cities have proposed as a $3.7 million package of short-term fixes in a bid to jump-start the countywide public transit plan known as the SMART plan, which envisions six rapid transit lines and nine express bus routes spanning Miami-Dade. Three of the proposed mass transit lines connect southern and western suburbs, including Cutler Bay, Palmetto Bay and Kendall, to downtown Miami, while two others would run south from Miami Gardens and Aventura. The sixth route spans from downtown Miami to South Beach.

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A Miami trolley on Biscayne Boulevard in downtown. City officials want to expand the city's trolley system. David Santiago dsantiago@miamiherald.com

In the meantime, planners want to chip away at smaller projects to help relieve congestion, prove the viability of public transit and lay some groundwork for the broader SMART plan. Miami-Dade's Transportation Planning Organization hopes to fund the temporary projects for up to three years by agreeing to split the costs 50/50 with city governments. Cities would have to commit to paying for half while the Transportation Planning Organization would seek state and federal dollars for the other half.

While the complete SMART plan spends more time under debate and study — officials are soliciting private sector proposals amid a stalemate over expansion of the Metrorail — these "demonstration projects" would serve as tests of some of the mass transit lines proposed in the SMART plan. If the routes are popular with riders, they could form the basis for a permanent route in the future.

A Tri-Rail stop in the area of Miami's Design District and Midtown would be an initial step toward a commuter train running north from downtown along Miami-Dade's east side. Expanded trolley systems are proposed for Miami's Flagami neighborhood, Doral and North Bay Village.

The express bus across the the Julia Tuttle Causeway could give hospitality workers who live on the mainland a better option for getting to work while alleviating congestion in Miami Beach. Many hotel workers currently spend hours commuting and have to take more than one bus to get from their apartments to the Beach's luxury hotels. They worry about losing their jobs when unreliable public transportation makes them late for work.

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Miami-Dade's Strategic Miami Area Rapid Transit (SMART) Plan envisions six mass transit lines connecting the county's suburbs to the downtown area and Miami Beach. Miami-Dade Transportation Planning Organization

Medley wants to shuttle workers from the Palmetto Metrorail station. Coral Gables wants to expand its FreeBee shuttle service, while Cutler Bay and Pinecrest want to establish similar shuttles to move residents from their neighborhoods to transit stops with small, golf-cart like vehicles that riders could call on-demand for free.

In Palmetto Bay, officials want to build a new park-and-ride facility along the South Dade Transitway, north of Bayan Street, between Bus Way and U.S. 1 heading south, and start shuttling residents from nearby neighborhoods to the facility. Miami Shores plans to employ a similar shuttle so commuters can get to a train station that would eventually be built as part of the broader SMART plan.

"We're trying to find any corridors of the plan that can be implemented in the interim," said Aileen Bouclé, executive director of the Transportation Planning Organization. In the quest to get some part of the SMART plan running in the near future, Bouclé said her organization would aggressively pursue outside funding for the temporary projects.

The package of 11 projects was endorsed by a subcommittee of the Transportation Planning Organization on Tuesday. It will go for approval to the full board in June.

Miami's pitch: a train platform under the Interstate 195 overpass near the Design District for Tri-Rail. It would mark the second stop on a long-desired commuter line Tri-Rail wants to have on railroad tracks owned by Florida East Coast Industries, the company that runs Brightline. Tri-Rail already has an agreement to run trains on FECI tracks to a platform at MiamiCentral station downtown, but safety testing still needs to be done and Tri-Rail does not have permission to stop anywhere on those tracks other than downtown.

The proposed Design District stop would give downtown dwellers a simpler route to the Design District and Midtown, but a would-be train rider who lives further north told the Miami Herald there needs to be a stop in her area for the train to make more sense. Alisa Cepeda, a Palm Grove resident who lives on Northeast 76th Street and works on West Flagler Street a half-mile from Government Center, said a commuter line to downtown would be perfect for her if it reached that part of the city.

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A map of the pilot public transportation projects recommended by the Miami-Dade Transportation Planning Organization.

"Hopefully they can make the trains work," she said.

A Brightline spokesperson said the company recognizes the importance of connecting Tri-Rail to its downtown station and potentially adding other Tri-Rail stops along the FEC tracks. "Initial discussions are under way," the spokesperson said.

While Brightline began running from the MiamiCentral station in downtown to West Palm Beach on Saturday, a Tri-Rail board member said service to downtown would likely begin in the second quarter of 2019.

The board member, Andrew Frey, said a stop in the area of Midtown and Wynwood is one of several envisioned near 79th Street, North Miami, North Miami Beach and Aventura.

For now, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez believes the proposed stop is worth pursuing because it would connect riders from downtown, Broward and Palm Beach counties to Miami's local trolley system. The Little Haiti and Biscayne trolley routes connect directly to the platform site, and the Wynwood trolley could be rerouted to stop there.

The Design District platform doesn't have an estimated price tag yet, but operation and maintenance costs are expected to total $700,00 annually for three years. Design and construction are expected to take 12 months.

Suarez said if the temporary platform succeeds in attracting riders, it would bolster the argument for a permanent station in the area — a prospect that has Wynwood business owners interested. David Polinsky, an engineer and real estate developer who serves as chairman of the Wynwood Business Improvement District's transportation committee, said property owners are eager to bid on building a platform on the first floor of a new development somewhere between 20th and 29th streets, as part of a public-private partnership.

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A Tri-Rail train heads northbound from the NW 79th street station on Tuesday April 21, 2015 C.M. GUERRERO cmguerrero@miamiherald.com

"I’m pretty sure that the private sector is going to get behind this in a really big way," he said.

Suarez said he hopes to take advantage of that private interest down the road.

"We will continue to work with all public and private-sector partners to find the location for a permanent train station in the Midtown, Edgewater, Overtown, and Wynwood neighborhoods," he wrote in an email to Wynwood business owners Monday.

In Miami Beach, city commissioners have endorsed the creation of a new bus route across the Julia Tuttle Causeway for workers who live on the mainland. The buses would have a dedicated lane on one of the causeway’s shoulders — a type of route known as bus express rapid transit — to shuttle primarily hospital and hotel workers across Biscayne Bay.

With an estimated 40,000 workers commuting to Miami Beach every day, the proposal could potentially take thousands of cars off the road and free up parking spots on the island, said Mayor Dan Gelber.

"For decades, everybody has talked about addressing our severe transit issue and our severe congestion issues, and this might be the beginning of a real solution," Gelber said.

The proposal could also provide faster, more direct public transportation for the hotel workers who currently take county buses to work.

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Fontainebleau housekeeper Odelie Paret, right, heads home on a packed bus from her job in Miami Beach. This commute to Opa-locka sometimes takes up to three hours, a ride that would take less time if a Miami Beach express bus were added. CARL JUSTE cjuste@miamiherald.com

Roselande Guerrier, a housekeeper at the Fontainebleau, has to leave her home in North Miami 2 1/2 hours before her shift starts and take two buses to work. When the buses arrive late, she gets in trouble at the hotel and worries about losing her job. In the evenings, it can take Guerrier anywhere from 45 minutes to three hours to get home, depending on whether the buses stop to pick her up or keep driving because they're full.

"It's gonna be very, very good for me," Guerrier said of the proposed bus route. "I'm going to have some time to pick up my kids. I’m going to have some time to do more stuff when I come to my house."

"It's going to save me from losing my job," she added.

Wendi Walsh, secretary-treasurer of the hotel union Unite Here Local 355, said many hotel workers face similar transportation challenges. "With the increasing cost of housing in Miami and Miami Beach, our workers are moving further and further away from the workplace," she said. "This is not going to be solution for all workers, but I do think it's a start."

A spokeswoman for Mount Sinai Medical Center said the express bus route would be "a welcome addition" for hospital workers who commute to Miami Beach every day.

The new express bus route would run from the Golden Glades area in northern Miami-Dade down to the Earlington Heights Metrorail Station near Allapattah, across Biscayne Bay and over to the Miami Beach Convention Center in South Beach.

Although the route was designed with the Beach’s workforce in mind, city officials said it could also help connect the island to the airport. The Metrorail line originating at Miami International Airport stops at the Earlington Heights station.

Under the SMART demonstration proposal, which Miami Beach developed with county transportation officials, the county would supply buses for the new route and Miami Beach would contribute roughly $1.7 million a year in operating costs for the first three years. If the project is successful, the county could make the route permanent.

As with the Tri-Rail platform in Miami, there are still logistical issues that need to be worked out — in this case with the Florida Department of Transportation, which has concerns about using the outside shoulder on the Julia Tuttle Causeway.

Gelber said he's hopeful that, if the logistical issues are resolved, the new bus route could be in place as early as this year.

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