Miami-Dade’s transportation board approved giving South Dade the county’s first rapid-transit bus system, rejecting demands that elected leaders stick with a 2002 promise to bring a costly Metrorail extension to the region.
Thursday’s vote by the Transportation Planning Organization, a board that includes the entire County Commission, marked a milestone in Miami-Dade’s stormy transit debate: It’s the first time leaders settled on a pricey, modernized alternative to the far more expensive Metrorail extensions that were linked to the passage of a transportation sales tax 16 years ago.
The $243 million system would create the county’s first “rapid-transit” bus system, using dedicated lanes with stations and vehicles designed to mimic the convenience of rail service.
“It’s not going to solve everything,” Homestead Mayor Jeff Porter said of the bus system, which would serve his city. “But it’s a start. Bus-rapid transit gets us on the way to a transit system that works.”
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The vote was 15-7, with the no votes coming from Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, Coral Gables Commissioner Vince Lago and County Commissioners Daniella Levine Cava, Audrey Edmonson, Barbara Jordan, Dennis Moss, and Xavier Suarez. (One seat on the 25-member board is vacant; Mayor Dan Gelber of Miami Beach and Mayor Oliver Gilbert of Miami Gardens were absent.)
County commissioners still must approve funding to build the project, which would create a 20-mile system connecting the Dadeland South Metrorail station to Florida City. Boarding happens at street level, so people in wheelchairs and with baby strollers won’t face stairs. Fourteen stations would be enveloped with iconic domed roofs, and offer advance ticketing to speed boarding.
Wide doors on the buses would let multiple passengers board at once, and the vehicles would continue running on dedicated lanes on the existing South Dade busway — but with automatic gates blocking traffic from crossing intersections when express buses pass through.
The county estimates it could have the system operating within three or four years, and it would be the country’s first “gold standard” system for bus rapid transit (which often goes by the shorthand BRT).
Mayor Carlos Gimenez championed the $243 million bus option as the far more responsible option, since extending Metrorail the same 20 miles to Florida City would cost $1.3 billion to build.
“We don’t want to put all of our eggs and resources into one corridor,” Gimenez told the board Thursday.
The next step will be applying for a federal grant of up to $100 million to cover a large chunk of the cost, with the rest coming from the state and the county’s half-percent sales tax for transportation. While the transportation board does not control funding, its approval is required for the use of federal money for transit and road projects.
Thursday’s vote was a significant setback for supporters of expanding Metrorail, who cast the decision as a betrayal of voters who were promised more rail in exchange for approving a tax that now generates close to $300 million a year.
“Please don’t relegate us to bus forever,” Cutler Bay Mayor Peggy Bell told members before the debate began. “If you make that decision today, that’s what you’re doing.”
A South Dade extension was part of the historic expansion of the 22-mile Metrorail system touted to voters in 2002 in exchange for approving a half-percent sales tax dedicated to transit and road projects. Since then, the county has added only about three miles of track linking Metrorail with Miami International Airport.
“I”m going to support rail, because that’s what we promised the people,” said Moss, who represents South Dade.
The original forecasts for the tax proved far too ambitious in terms of the projects that could be built, and Miami-Dade now uses about $90 million a year to subsidize transit options. The Gimenez administration says about $35 million of that comes from the MIA Metrorail extension and free transit for seniors, two promises that were made in the 2002 referendum.
Thursday’s South Dade vote was more than two years in the works, following the 2016 launch of the Strategic Miami Area Rapid Transit Plan.
The “SMART” Plan launched studies of transit options for South Dade and five other corridors, which roughly matched the rail extensions that were part of the 2002 transportation plan linked to the transportation tax vote. A financial report released by the county in July showed Miami-Dade plans to spend $15 million on the studies through 2020.
South Dade was the first corridor to receive its consultant report, when AECOM recommended a rapid-transit bus line this summer. The Gimenez administration had preempted the study process in 2017, when it recommended rapid-transit bus for both the South Dade corridor and the one running north to Broward County along 27th Avenue.
Advocates for Metrorail in South Dade argued that settling on a bus system would doom rail expansion everywhere else, since it only gets harder once the county shifts to other corridors.
In the South Dade busway, Miami-Dade already owns the land needed to lay new tracks. While opting for buses there does leave more dollars for other corridors, the vote shows elected leaders are willing to endure the ire of Metrorail advocates in favor of a more affordable — and achievable — transit option.
Financial forecasts from the Gimenez administration said building and operating the 20-mile Metrorail extension would eat up about 75 percent of the $8 billion it projects will be available for transit projects over the next 40 years.
The mayor, who was elected in 2011 after holding a commission seat since 2004, said it was time for current Miami-Dade leaders to make the right transit choices and not be shackled by the “pie-in-the-sky” promises from the 2002 campaign for the transportation tax.
“People are saying: ‘Wait a minute, I promised them you could get them to the moon.’ Well, I can’t get you to the moon. I’m not stuck on those promises,” he said. “These are the cards we were dealt. This is the money we have. We have to do our best.”
Levine Cava, who represents part of South Dade, said supporters of the bus plan used the threat of draining transit dollars to build support from other regions to sink the Metrorail option.
“Today, sadly, we are divided,” she said, predicting approval of the bus option would “enrage” South Dade residents. “That division has happened because certain corridors have been threatened.”
With the South Dade route stretching into rural areas of the county, consultants said the population density doesn’t exist to make a rail project highly competitive for federal funds.
Gimenez pitched the rapid-transit bus plan as a way station for a future rail project if the financial projections improve, and the transportation board’s vote includes a proviso to begin pursuing rail if ridership on the bus system ever hits 35,000 a day. Projections from county consultant AECOM predicted 25,000 a day at most by 2040 (and 40,000 a day for a South Dade Metrorail extension).
Commissioner Eileen Higgins, a regular bus rider in Miami, argued it didn’t make sense to pay so much more money to accommodate those commuters who would take public transit only if it’s a train. She recalled her days working in Mexico City and riding its rapid-transit bus system.
“We’ve never seen anything like it in Miami-Dade County,” she said. “For those of you who never had the pleasure of riding bus rapid-transit, I think you’re in for a pleasant surprise.”
This article was updated to correct an inflated calculation on Miami-Dade’s budgeted expense for the SMART transit studies.