At a French cafe a few blocks from her downtown Miami condo, Eileen Higgins talks about the limitations of the city's trolley system when it comes to handling crowds at rush hour.
"Look at the amount of people in that 120," Higgins says as a 60-foot No. 120 county bus whizzes by the restaurant's bay window, too quick for her tablemate to notice the digital number above the windshield. "That's a lot of people."
Higgins, Miami-Dade's newest county commissioner, spotted the 120 with ease since she takes it regularly when she's heading north to Miami's Omni bus depot.
A former New York marketing honcho with a listed net worth topping $2 million and a Mercedes-Benz hatchback in her building's garage, Higgins doesn't need to take the bus.
But she does regularly, a transit habit unique for a county commissioner as she prepares to join a 13-member board where bus riding is sometimes dismissed as a dated commuting option of last resort.
"I had an unofficial survey of my kids and their friends," Commissioner Joe Martinez said last week as the sponsor of legislation to extend the 836 expressway 14 miles into his district in West Kendall, a plan that won preliminary approval in a 9-2 vote. "They won't take a bus. Ever."
Higgins, 53, takes office as the county's District 5 commissioner at a time when Miami-Dade's short-term transit ambitions may be shifting from rail to bus. Miami and other cities, frustrated at waiting for results from the county's SMART plan study of six commuting corridors, are expanding free municipal trolleys (essentially small buses) funded by the county's transportation tax. Mayor Carlos Gimenez, whose reelection ads in 2016 tout more rail lines, has proposed creating dedicated bus lanes as stand-ins for extending Metrorail to the northern and southern reaches of the county.
While Higgins shares firsthand experience of the under-funded bus system's shortcomings — "Good luck to you on a Sunday if you want to try and get anywhere" — she rejects the pessimism about traditional buses when it comes to the future of Miami-Dade transit.
"The bus gets a bad rap," she said during the interview at Miami's Café Bastille, about an hour before she headed to the county clerk's office to be sworn in Friday. "I bring a different perspective ... because I use it."
Higgins takes the 77 bus to the Culmer area, where she rents space for her online marketing firm in the CIC co-working center. She'll take the No. 7 to Little Havana ("The 207 or 208 circulators are good, too," Higgins says) and the No. 3 for longer trips up Biscayne Boulevard. She's a big fan of Miami's app for the city's free trolleys, and says the county's own bus app generally performs well. She has Doral's trolley app on her iPhone, too, even though she's not a fan of the wait between trolleys there.
Higgins also used buses to get her to campaign stops in a district that includes Little Havana and South Beach. "She would only take her car when she had to get to an interview out in Doral," said Nancy Jackson, a campaign aide who is joining the Higgins commission staff. "Ninety percent of the time, she would take the bus. Or the trolley."
For Martinez, having a regular bus rider join the commission doesn't mean much. "I don't need to get shot to know getting shot is going to hurt," said Martinez, a former county police officer. "Hearing the experiences from my constituents is the same hearing it from her."
Higgins, a community activist who runs a business-marketing program, won the seat in a special election called after Bruno Barreiro gave it up to run in a Republican congressional primary.
Barreiro represented the district for 20 years, and positioned his wife and fellow Republican, Zoraida Barreiro, as his successor. As the Cuban-American candidate running in a district anchored by Little Havana, Barreiro was the favorite and had the backing of most of the lobbyists, developers and vendors that give reliably to county incumbents. But Higgins scored upset wins in the primary and the June 19 runoff, which she won by 6 points.
A Democrat who had been an active campaigner in local races, Higgins became her party's standard-bearer in the officially nonpartisan race for the District 5 seat. Her win has Democrats hoping for repeats against other Republican county commissioners up for reelection this summer: Jose "Pepe" Diaz, Rebeca Sosa and Javier Souto, who along with Democrats Daniella Levine Cava and Jean Monestime, hold the even-numbered seats facing an August election.
With Higgins making her debut as the Democrats' Exhibit A for how to oust Republican incumbents later this summer, an immediate challenge may be building relationships at County Hall. Gimenez, a Republican who helped raise money for Barreiro, hadn't called Higgins with congratulations as of Monday afternoon, nearly a week after her Tuesday win. (A Gimenez spokesman said Monday evening that the mayor had reached out to Higgins that day.)
Politics aside, Gimenez may have an ally in Higgins on the transit front. Last year, the mayor proposed a $534 million plan to create rapid-transit bus corridors connecting to the northern and southern tips of the existing Metrorail routes. With air-conditioned stations along express routes, the "rapid-transit" bus system would give commuters a way to avoid traffic without Miami-Dade spending at least $1.5 billion extending Metrorail south to Florida City and north past Miami Gardens.
The plan sparked opposition from the County Commission, with members refusing to support a retreat on promised rail lines along both corridors. Weeks later, members took a symbolic vote endorsing the rail expansion as part of the county's 2016 SMART Plan, which is studying how to expand transit along routes and other commuting corridors.
Higgins hasn't taken a position on next steps for the north and south corridors. But she's skeptical of a non-bus plan for the SMART route that runs through District 5. That's the "personal rapid transit" rail system — a circuit of van-sized shuttles that arrive on-demand along elevated tracks — pitched by Commissioner Xavier Suarez for the MacArthur Causeway, which connects Miami to Miami Beach.
Suarez, one of two commissioners who endorsed Higgins, sees personal rapid transit as a cheaper way to provide transit across the MacArthur that would appeal to people who don't want to ride the bus. Estimates of personal rapid transit systems range from $10 million to $25 million a mile, compared to as much as $100 million per mile for rail.
For Higgins, the plan risks spending significant dollars on a system that doesn't serve the transit commuters already on the MacArthur taking buses through traffic. "They need to prove to me there's capacity to move the low-income workers at rush hour," Higgins said.
While Miami-Dade waits for consultant studies recommending a transit mode for the MacArthur and the other SMART corridors, Higgins said she'd like to see the county work with Miami and Miami Beach to created a dedicated bus lane on the Julia Tuttle, a causeway that's wider than the MacArthur.
"And by the way, that's not part of the SMART Plan," she said. "So we don't have to wait around."