Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s plan for a $243 million rapid-transit bus line for South Dade hit a last-minute stumble Thursday as a transportation board opted to delay a vote on the proposal until Aug. 30 amid demands that the county extend Metrorail instead.
After a contentious debate, Gimenez said he was confident he had the votes on the Transportation Planning Organization. But then Chairman Esteban “Steve” Bovo, a supporter of the plan, opted to accommodate a deferral request by opponents. The delay until Aug. 30 moves the controversial vote to 48 hours after the Aug. 28 primary, when five incumbent commissioners are facing reelection.
“It’s frustrating,” Gimenez said as members of the 25-seat board, which includes all 13 county commissioners, filed out of the chambers Thursday evening. “We should have just voted it up or down right now. Make a decision. That’s what we’re here for.”
No elected official on the board argued that the rapid-transit bus system’s selling points would be more appealing than a 20-mile extension of Metrorail. A South Dade Metrorail line was a signature element of a “People’s Transportation Plan” pitched to voters in 2002 as part of a successful referendum campaign for a half-percent transportation tax that now generates more than $200 million a year. But with a county consultant estimating that a new Metrorail line would cost more than $6 billion over 40 years, Gimenez gained support for the modernized bus option as a reasonable second choice.
“We know what our community has asked for,” said Bovo, who had been a top rail advocate on the County Commission. “We also know what we can afford.”
Representatives of South Dade called the bus plan a betrayal and the county’s analysis as biased against rail.
“People are dying down there in this gridlock,” Cutler Bay Mayor Peggy Bell told the board during public comments for the afternoon meeting. “They’re spending five hours a day in their cars. And we wonder why people are so angry.”
As proposed, the bus system would have iconic stations and new vehicles designed to imitate trains by offering group boarding level with the platform and advanced ticket sales.
The vote was slated to be the first test of the SMART Plan, a 2016 initiative that launched consultant studies of South Dade and five of Miami-Dade’s other busiest commuting corridors. Budgeted at roughly $30 million in Miami-Dade for three corridors (Florida is funding the rest), the initiative has so far only yielded one recommendation: County consultant AECOM concluded rapid-transit bus makes the most sense for South Dade, saying Metrorail wouldn’t attract enough riders to compete for federal funds.
Miami-Dade faces an early September deadline to apply for federal funding for the bus plan. Even with board approval, the project faces multiple steps and votes before construction could begin. Starting service by 2022 depends on securing federal, state and Miami-Dade funds, with the County Commission holding authority over local transportation dollars expected to underpin about a third of the project.
Among people who participated in the public meetings held as part of the South Dade study, about 55 percent favored rail, versus 33 percent for the bus option. Speakers during the public comment before the 25-seat board on Thursday largely favored the rail plan, too, citing years of paying the half-percent sales tax without seeing a promised Metrorail extension.
“This has got to be the greatest mismanagement of money in the county’s history,” Manuel Ernesto Gutierrez, who lives off 259th Street in South Dade, about 12 miles from the nearest Metrorail station, told the board. “We must give residents what they voted for. That is what you promised.”
Members of the transportation board, which includes mayors and other elected officials, shared their own denunciations of the 2002 pledges, blaming other politicians who made them. But a majority seemed to be forming to reject the promises as not binding in favor of actually building a new transit system.
“There’s no doubt about it: The voters of Miami-Dade were lied to,” said Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernández. “We have an opportunity here to show we’re serious now.”
Commissioner Barbara Jordan, who represents parts of the SMART Plan’s northern corridor, secured the deferral after slamming the bus plan and Gimenez for shifting his transit priorities. He ran a campaign ad in 2016 touting “More Rail Lines” while touting the SMART Plan in a Metrorail car, but now says he’s concluded that extending rail is too expensive. Last year he proposed the rapid-transit bus systems for the northern and southern corridors, and Jordan argued there’s too much of a rush to give up on more Metrorail.
“I understand we want to get something done,” she said. “But let’s do the right thing.”