In a few weeks, Miami-Dade plans to sit down with transit companies from around the world to start some tantalizing discussions: How might you spend nearly $8 billion on new projects?
Ahead of meetings in late July with a Spanish company helping build a rail system in Brazil, an Australian investment firm specializing in infrastructure projects and at least a dozen other companies, Miami-Dade published financial projections for tax dollars available for projects through 2057. The total: $7.7 billion.
According to a county calculation, that revenue stream should allow Miami-Dade to borrow about $2.6 billion for a project today — enough for two major Metrorail extensions,. But it would still need to find significant dollars for operations and maintenance, which cost the 25-mile Metrorail system about $75 million a year today.
The invitations to private transit providers were demanded several months ago by county commissioners frustrated by Miami-Dade needing another year for consultants to wrap up studies on the ongoing SMART plan. The 2016 Strategic Miami Area Rapid Transit effort eventually will recommend projects for six of the area’s busiest commuting routes, with all reports expected by the end of 2018.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
“It’s taking too long for us,” Commissioner Rebeca Sosa said during a committee meeting Thursday on transit funding. “I’m pretty sure there are many companies ... that can offer alternatives to us.”
Now the process designed as an end-run around the SMART consultants may collide with elected leaders actually making a decision on a spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a new transit mode.
On July 19, the Miami-Dade Transportation Planning Organization, a board that includes all 13 county commissioners, is set to vote on whether to accept the SMART consultant’s recommendation to spend $300 million creating a “rapid transit” bus line from the end of Metrorail to Florida City. It’s the first of the SMART studies to conclude.
It’s also bringing the first high-stakes vote in the SMART process, since approval would let Miami-Dade apply for up to $100 million in federal dollars to subsidize the new transit system. Known as “bus rapid transit,” the buses are designed to mimic some of the perks of rail, including doors wide enough for group boarding and tickets purchased ahead of time. They would run express routes along 14 new stations on the county’s existing dedicated busway in South Dade.
When Mayor Carlos Gimenez first proposed the rapid-transit bus plan in 2017, he said extending Metrorail would take too long and cost too much to be the county’s first choice in South Dade.
Though he ran a reelection ad the prior year touting “More Rail Lines,” Gimenez said his outlook had changed. He pitched the bus option as a way to create the stations and buy land for a future rail system while providing new commuting options quickly. The county said it could have the new South Dade bus network running by 2022.
Esteban “Steve” Bovo, the County Commission chairman and a top rail advocate, praised the bus plan Thursday as a potential starting point toward rail. The stations could be converted to accommodate trains, and Miami-Dade would install the same crossing arms to let buses speed through intersections that rail systems use.
“Showing the community progress, even if it’s baby steps,” Bovo said, “it’s something that we should consider.”
The county consultant for the South Dade corridor, AECOM, estimates extending Metrorail down the 20-mile busway would cost about $1.3 billion. AECOM also concluded that ridership along the busway wouldn’t be large enough to let Miami-Dade compete for federal funds, which could cover half of the project costs.
The upcoming vote on the South Dade corridor would largely end the SMART study for that route, with the transportation board picking its preferred transit mode for the leg.
The pending decision has also sparked what may be the fiercest SMART Plan fight yet, with South Dade leaders demanding the Metrorail extension promised in 2002 when voters approved a half-percent sales tax for transportation projects.
“We built Metrorail in 1980, and the only thing we’ve done since is build a little two-and-a-half mile spur into the airport. That’s it,” said Commissioner Dennis Moss, who represents parts of South Dade. The “signal being sent is bus-rapid transit is all we can do. That’s what is being said. I’m not buying into it. ... We’re working on some solutions.”
For now, the county has only invited companies to express interest in some sort of SMART Plan process, without any details of what might be built or funded. The funding stream released earlier this month was promptly retracted from a county website with a note that the numbers would be revised. A county official said new projections would be available once the 2019 budget proposal is released next week.
To start the process, Miami-Dade has scheduled a string of sessions on July 29 and July 30 to meet with county officials about some basic details on the process, said Alice Bravo, Miami-Dade’s transportation director.
“The whole point is for the industry to have accurate information,” Bravo said. “These companies decide way in advance what projects they’re going to pursue, based on how much money is available and what decisions have been made.“
Among the companies listed on the meeting roster: Sacyr, a Spanish firm involved in an expansion of Brazil’s Fortaleza Metro system; Plenary, an Australian infrastructure firm developing tolled lanes in Texas and a light-rail system in Canada; and Ultra, maker of the van-sized transit “pods” being contemplated for a link between Miami and Miami Beach.
The administration proposal for rapid-transit bus service in South Dade would use the same revenue stream laid out for the potential private-sector bidders. But with the county fielding interest from private financiers and builders, that process is designed to consider a range of transit proposals for one or multiple SMART corridors. The systems would rely on public dollars for operations and to pay back — with a profit — whatever money a private firm might put into a project for construction .
A company could also float a project on the South Dade corridor, meaning the county could receive a competing plan even as it pursues federal dollars for rapid-transit bus service.
“If four months from now we receive an unsolicited proposal that’s fully vetted and the county can afford, you withdraw that federal application,” Bravo said. “You’ve lost nothing.”