Miami-Dade County

Miami-Dade leaders face a showdown on Metrorail expansion. Could it be their last?

Transit signal priority demo ride along the South Dade Transit Way

Transit signal priority demo ride along the South Dade Transit Way with Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez on July 17, 2018.
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Transit signal priority demo ride along the South Dade Transit Way with Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez on July 17, 2018.

After more than a decade of condemning misguided promises to expand Metrorail, local leaders have a chance this week to continue the fight or settle on a more achievable option: modified express buses designed to mimic the perks of rail.

Rapid-transit buses would run on 20 miles of existing dedicated lanes in South Dade, but with the modifications that the county’s existing fleet lacks. Boardings would happen at ground level, through doors wide enough allow multiple passengers to walk on at once.

The buses would stop at 14 stations enveloped by iconic domed roofs and equipped with advanced ticketing to speed boarding.

Buses would run parallel to U.S. 1 on the current South Dade busway, but with new guard arms at intersections to block traffic from cross streets. Existing technology would shorten or eliminate red lights for the express buses.

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Here is a rendering of a proposed rapid-transit bus station along the South Dade busway. There would be 14 of them under Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s plan to create a line of express buses designed for group boarding and advanced ticket sales to connect the southern end of Metrorail to Florida City. Miami-Dade

If that sounds appealing, critics of the $243 million plan set for a vote Thursday before a county transportation board say they have one that’s even better: extending Metrorail another 20 miles to connect to Florida City and give South Dade residents their promised “one seat” ride to downtown Miami. Expanding Metrorail south was one of the promises offered voters in 2002 during a successful campaign to enact a half-percent transportation tax on sales countywide, a levy that now generates close to $300 million a year.

Both sides make a similar argument: A misguided vote on Thursday will doom the future of transit in Miami-Dade. Advocates of Metrorail expansion see South Dade as the lowest hanging fruit for expanding rail, since Miami-Dade can run street-level tracks on the existing busway and doesn’t have to buy land.

“If we can’t do it along the South Dade corridor, where are we going to be able to do it?” said Commissioner Dennis Moss, who represents part of South Dade. If South Dade is a no, he said, “I would find it hard to think it could be approved anywhere else, because of the difficulties the other corridors would have.”

For the champions of the rapid-transit bus plan, Thursday’s vote is a choice between progress and an excuse to keep old complaints alive. A county forecast says building and operating the new $1.3 billion South Dade Metrorail route would eat up about 75 percent of the more than $8 billion that Miami-Dade’s budget office estimates will be available for new transit projects over the next 40 years. Even that grim ratio assumes Washington would pick up 50 percent of the development tab for the new Metrorail line.

“We come and talk about the South corridor, and how it’s so needed,” said Commissioner Rebeca Sosa, whose district runs along the 836 expressway that connects Miami with the western suburbs. “I also want to hear about the east-west corridor, and the north corridor. We have to be realistic.”

A Metrorail car at Miami International Airport, home to the one new rail station funded by a half-percent sales tax approved by Miami-Dade voters in 2002 to expand transit. C.M. GUERRERO.

The South Dade decision raises the stakes for the 2016 SMART Plan, an initiative that launched six studies of transit options along some of Miami-Dade’s busiest commuting corridors. The effort raised hopes that elected leaders could coalesce around a new plan to deliver the six new rail routes sold to voters in the 2002 referendum. While the transportation consultants explored rail in each of the six corridors, the South Dade process came back with a recommendation from county consultant AECOM for rapid-transit bus on that route. The other five studies are still in the works, making the South Dade corridor the first SMART corridor to force a decision on whether rail is the best option.

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez helped launch the SMART Plan in 2016, and touted it in a reelection commercial that year filmed in a Metrorail car and featuring the headline “More Rail Lines.”

But then he didn’t wait for the South Dade study to be finished to conclude the following year that rail wasn’t financially feasible after all. In 2017, he released a recommendation to create rapid-transit bus lines in South Dade and running north along 27th Avenue. He pitched the plan as a compromise that would allow Miami-Dade to give commuters a new transit option with the county’s first rapid-transit bus system, and then allow the stations and routes to be converted to rail once ridership and transit finances improved.

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Miami-Dade Commissioner Rebeca Sosa said she doesn’t want Miami-Dade to invest too much transit money in South Dade and be left with no funds for other commuting corridors that need relief. Roberto Koltun

Demanding Metrorail expansion in South Dade would trigger a much lengthier application process for federal funds than the one required for a new bus system. It also would require the kind of extensive planning documents that the Gimenez administration says it can skip for a new bus system. Advocates of the bus option argue a vote for Metrorail would simply extend the planning process into the next decade before landing at the same scenario: construction costs that are too high for local funds, and projected ridership that is too low to feel confident about federal aid.

“We can’t wait any longer,” said Alfred Sanchez, president of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, a business group that this month endorsed the rapid-transit bus plan for South Dade. “We’ve got to start finding solutions.”

The Gimenez administration estimates it could have a new rapid-transit bus line operating within three or four years. The effort coincides with the county soliciting ideas for transit projects from the private sector. The for-profit sector is helping to lobby for the Gimenez bus plan, too. Ralph Garcia-Toledo, whose construction-management firm works for a SMART consultant and the producer of Miami-Dade’s new natural-gas buses, accompanied Miami-Dade transit chief Alice Bravo in meetings with some members of the transportation board as she tried to solidify support for the bus strategy, the agency said.

Picking between bus and rail proved too daunting the last time the county’s Transportation Planning Organization convened to decide the future of transit in South Dade.

The 25-member board oversees federal transportation dollars in Miami-Dade, and consists of all 13 county commissioners, plus elected officials from cities and other local governments. Supporters of Metrorail won a postponement of the vote in July, delaying until Thursday the scheduled decision on the county’s official preference between rail and rapid-transit bus in South Dade. That designation is required to ask Washington for transportation grants, funding that would be vital for either option.

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez is the top champion for a plan to build a rapid-transit bus system in South Dade. Opponents want Miam-Dade to commit to a Metrorail expansion instead.

Some positions have only hardened since then. One member of the board, Coral Gables councilman Vince Lago, is suing Miami-Dade to free up more transportation-tax dollars for Metrorail expansion. The civil suit was orchestrated by Miami-Dade Commissioner Xavier Suarez, a lawyer and the father of another board member, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez.

Both Suarezes are in the midst of their own feuds with Gimenez, the top champion of the rapid-transit bus plan. Gimenez last week went on radio to mock Xavier Suarez for his transportation ideas while Suarez was mayor of Miami himself in the 1990s, including a flirtation with dispatching airborne magnets to snatch broken-down cars from U.S. 1. A second county transportation board, which supervises the half-percent sales tax passed by voters in 2002, late last week endorsed a partial extension of Metrorail in South Dade.

Alex Penelas, the former Miami-Dade mayor who was the architect of the 2002 transportation tax when it passed during his administration, is trying to rally support for the rail option. He warns that settling on an option other than Metrorail in South Dade will extinguish any hope of extending rail anywhere.

“I think the handwriting will be on the wall,” he said. “You’re going to have [rapid-transit bus] everywhere.”

Penelas weighing into the South Dade debate annoyed Gimenez and others, who see him as the leader who sold voters on a transportation plan that promised big but resulted in no major transit expansion beyond a three-mile Metrorail link to Miami International Airport. Penelas argues the money was misspent after he left office, and that failed promises of the past shouldn’t be an excuse for not pursuing future projects.

For Gimenez, the South Dade Metrorail option offers Miami-Dade a chance to repeat the misguided plan for 2002. He cites the northern Metrorail extension that fell apart 10 years ago when it failed to qualify for vital federal funds. Washington decided Miami-Dade didn’t have the local money needed to keep a new rail system functioning properly.

If current county commissioners and other members of the transportation board vote for rail, “they’re going to repeat the same promise. And they’re going to run into the same problem,” Gimenez said. “Once you don’t get federal money, the project is dead.”