Miami-Dade County

Miami-Dade’s Metrorail fight moves north as county considers $870 million extension

Passengers board the new Metrorail trains at the Miami International Airport terminal, the end point of a three-mile extension that is the only new segment of a county rail system that launched in the 1980s.
Passengers board the new Metrorail trains at the Miami International Airport terminal, the end point of a three-mile extension that is the only new segment of a county rail system that launched in the 1980s. cmguerrero@miamiherald.com

Florida’s Transportation Department on Monday recommended extending Metrorail north along 27th Avenue to link the current rail system with Miami Dade College, an $870 million project that the county’s administration says is too expensive for an already strained transit budget.

Extending Metrorail the entire 13 miles from the Dr. Martin Luther King station north along 27th Avenue to the Broward line would cost about $1.8 billion, plus an additional $46 million to operate the new extension.

To pursue a less daunting price tag, the consulting firm Florida hired to study the North corridor, WSP USA, recommended starting with a two-mile extension to Miami Dade College’s campus at Northwest 119th Street and 27th Avenue. Combined with about $400 million in land-acquisition expenses needed for the full 13-mile system, the initial cost would be about $870 million.

“It provides that one-seat ride direct connection into downtown Miami, which is always desirable,” John Lafferty, supervising planner for WSP USA, told the Transportation board’s fiscal committee Monday. “And rail will serve as a strong catalyst for redevelopment throughout that area.”

The recommendation readies the next transit fight in Miami-Dade, following this summer’s showdown on whether to extend Metrorail south. Mayor Carlos Gimenez argued against that $1.3 billion project, arguing it would drain the funds needed to improve transit across the county. Gimenez’s argument won out, with a key county transportation board approving a $240 million rapid-transit bus system for South Dade, instead.

That Aug. 30 vote by the Transportation Planning Organization, a board that includes the entire 13-member County Commission, marked the first decision in the 2016 “SMART Plan” process, which launched studies for six of the county’s busiest commuting corridors. With the South Dade corridor decision made, the county’s next decision involves the plan’s north corridor. A vote by the transportation board is scheduled for December.

Miami-Dade hopes to have Washington and Florida pick up most of the tab, with the county contributing about 30 cents of every dollar in construction costs. But that amount of outside funding is far from assured, with transit agencies from across the country competing for the scarce federal dollars that would trigger state money.

Miami-Dade has already cut transit services to make up for revenue gaps, and the Gimenez administration has proposed a $204 million plan to bring rapid-transit buses to 27th Avenue. The buses would offer group boarding and advance ticket sales and run on dedicated lanes in the median of the existing four-lane avenue.

The state plan would keep Metrorail elevated in order to avoid closing down intersections and blocking traffic by running trains at street level. There would be three new stations in the first phase to Miami Dade College: 83rd Street, 97th Street and MDC itself. The state rejected the Gimenez concept of rapid-transit buses and of using the middle of 27th Avenue for a new route, saying dedicated lanes would be too disruptive to automobile traffic on a congested thoroughfare.

Metrorail’s elevated tracks would run up the middle of 27th Avenue, a plan that drew criticism from Miami-Dade Commissioner Barbara Jordan, who represents much of the proposed route.

“To me, it destroys the community,” she said, saying the columns and rumbling track promise to form an unofficial boundary between the east and west sides of the avenue.

Jordan said she wanted Metrorail to continue off to one side of 27th Avenue. That would make it easier to encourage retail and residential development around the new Metrorail stations, she said, generating extra land-use revenue for the costly project.

A Metrorail extension up 27th Avenue was first studied in the 1990s, and Washington had approved a similar project in 2007 before Miami-Dade shelved the idea during the recession. An expanded Metrorail line up 27th Avenue was also a central promise in 2002 when Miami-Dade won voter approval for a new half-percent sales tax for transportation projects.

Since then, Miami-Dade has added only about three miles to what was a 22-mile Metrorail system, which now is connected to Miami International Airport.

Dennis Moss, chairman of the fiscal committee of the Transportation planning board, said he was hesitant to support a phased plan for expanding Metrorail, given the county’s history of incremental progress with a rail system that launched in the 1980s.

“It took us about 30 years to build three miles,” he said.

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