Miami-Dade County

Costs killed one Metrorail expansion, but a pricier option is looking more popular

Miami-Dade debuts new Metrorail train cars

Miami-Dade County rolls out its long-awaited new Metrorail cars on Nov. 30, 2017.
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Miami-Dade County rolls out its long-awaited new Metrorail cars on Nov. 30, 2017.

Months after deciding Metrorail was too pricey for South Miami-Dade, county leaders are on board with an even costlier expansion of the rail system to the north.

A state consultant recommends Miami-Dade build a $1.8 billion extension of Metrorail’s existing elevated tracks along Northwest 27th Avenue. The consultant, WSP USA, rejected the option of a modernized, rapid-transit bus route for 27th Avenue as too disruptive to existing traffic.

That’s the same kind of bus system that Mayor Carlos Gimenez won approval for in South Dade in August. His administration had recommended a similar system last year for the north as well. A county transportation board will take up the consultant’s proposal Thursday, clearing the way for Miami-Dade to apply for transit dollars from Washington for the project.

This summer Gimenez campaigned publicly and privately to block board approval of a $1.3 billion Metrorail option in the south, including a last-minute bid by transit advocates to start with a smaller segment of the 20-mile extension being considered. Months later, the Gimenez administration has dropped its rapid-transit bus recommendation for the north in favor of the phased construction of an elevated rail system that a consultant says will cost about $1.8 billion.

“The mayor agrees with the recommendation for an elevated track for the north corridor,” Gimenez communications chief Myriam Marquez said, adding that the mayor wants other rail options, such as monorail, considered to lower costs. “He wants it done in phases so that it’s financially feasible.”

The latest bus-versus-rail question for Miami-Dade stems from the 2016 SMART Plan, an initiative that launched transit studies for six of the Miami area’s busiest commuting routes. Florida is paying for some of the studies, and Miami-Dade the others.

The first completed study covered the South Dade corridor, and on Aug. 30 the county’s Transportation Planning Organization board approved the recommendation for creating a rapid-transit bus system running 20 miles along an existing busway between the Dadeland South Metrorail station and Florida City.

Now the transportation board, a mix of elected officials who oversee federal transportation dollars in Miami-Dade, is set to vote Thursday on the second SMART consultant recommendation: building elevated rail in the North Dade corridor.

This fall, WSP recommended a 13-mile elevated extension of Metrorail along 27th Avenue to Hard Rock Stadium before stopping at the Broward County line. It would connect to the existing Metrorail elevated line along the avenue, which currently ends at the Northside Station off of 79th Street. WSP recommended using existing Metrorail trains to reduce cost, but the transportation board item up for vote on Thursday only refers to a generic rail system to leave the option for more modern technology.

Building the project would fulfill one of the oldest broken promises of Miami-Dade’s transit system, which was supposed to build a northern Metrorail leg up 27th Avenue in the years after the county’s rail line launched in 1984. As county leaders campaigned for a half-percent sales tax in 2002 to fund Metrorail expansion and other transportation projects, the northern leg was again promised as a top priority.

“We promised that the north corridor would be the No. 1 priority. When the original Metrorail was built, the rail was supposed to go up the north corridor,” said Miami-Dade Commissioner Dennis Moss, who represents South Dade and fought Gimenez’s rapid-transit bus plan for the region. “We promised the people rail.”

Gimenez and the transportation board, which includes the entire 13-member County Commission, faced sharp criticism from South Dade mayors for picking bus over rail. The mayor’s support for extending rail to the north while sticking with bus for the south has triggered more outrage.

“It’s hard to believe,” said Cutler Bay Mayor Peggy Bell. “We certainly support good transit for the north and always have. I have not been able to wrap my head around the idea that one end of the county should get elevated rail, and we can’t even get street-level rail to Cutler Bay. I’m very sorry to see the majority [of county leaders] don’t care about the south end” of Miami-Dade.

Despite the controversy, the stakes may not be extremely high for the upcoming transportation board vote on the north corridor. Placing a rail extension even within the realm of financially feasible requires federal transportation aid worth hundreds of millions of dollars. With competition stiff for massive federal transit grants, Miami-Dade leaders can approve the concept of a north rail plan on Thursday and then wait to see if Washington goes along before having to make difficult decisions on how to pay for it locally.

“Do we have the money to do this?” said Chairman Esteban “Steve” Bovo, who voted for the rapid-transit bus system in South Dade but has been supportive of the rail option in the north. “That’s not a light question, which needs to be answered.”

A 40-year county financial forecast estimates Miami-Dade should have about $8.5 billion to spend on the six SMART corridors through 2058. That would include all additional operating costs and interest payments on debt incurred on new projects, as well as any cash spent directly on construction. Extending Metrorail 13 miles north on 27th Avenue to the Broward County line would cost about $1.8 billion to build and roughly $46 million a year to operate. That’s about 60 percent of Metrorail’s current $76 million operating budget for a 25-mile system.

Advocates hope to finance the projects through privatization arrangements known as public-private partnerships. That typically involves a for-profit company spending its own money on construction of a public project and then administering it for decades in exchange for yearly payments from the government.

An unconventional financing model could be crucial for a major transit project in Miami-Dade, since most of the county’s transportation funds are tied up by existing debt obligations for the next two decades. The forecast also shows the short-term pain ahead to make the targets because the plan requires a sharp increase in the already sizable subsidy the county’s transit system receives from property taxes.

Miami-Dade’s countywide general fund, a $1.6 billion pool of money where about 80 cents of every dollar comes from property taxes, currently contributes about $208 million to the Department of Transportation and Public Works. That’s set to soar 80 percent over the next five years to $360 million as the county shifts the transportation sales tax from subsidizing transit operations to paying debt on transit projects, including the new $380 million fleet of replacement Metrorail cars.

In 2017, Gimenez’s budget chief, Jennifer Moon, warned commissioners during a discussion on transit financing that expanding rail north and south would wallop property taxes used to fund police, parks and other general government expenses. “At the end of the day … you are saying you are going to support an increase in property taxes in order to fund it, if you’re not going to be eliminating other services in order to fund this,” Moon said of the commission’s symbolic vote on Sept. 26, 2017, endorsing rail on the north and south SMART Plan corridors.

Moss said that while he lost the rail vote in South Dade, he would still support rail to the north. Commissioner Barbara Jordan represents North Dade and voted for rail in the south, because a Metrorail extension to Florida City was promised voters during the 2002 sales-tax referendum. She said the north corridor had been promised a rail system well before that.

“The North Dade community has been waiting for over 35 years to have some mode of transportation that would be suitable ... so we could finish what we started 35 years ago,” she said.

Rapid-transit bus is an easier alternative in South Dade than it is in North Dade, since Miami-Dade already operates dedicated lanes for buses in the south. In North Dade, the county would need to create the lanes out of existing roadway used by traffic.

Miami-Dade paid for the South Dade consultant, AECOM, and the company reported to the county’s transit agency under Gimenez during the study process. The study recommended against Metrorail in favor of building what would be the county’s only rapid-transit bus system. Those systems use dedicated lanes to insulate buses from traffic, and group boarding and advance ticket sales to speed travel along a network of express stops.

The detailed AECOM findings released in July matched the mayor’s own recommendations for rapid-transit bus for the South Dade corridor, which he laid out in a memo in the summer of 2017. That memo pitched a $534 million rapid-transit bus system for both the South Dade corridor and for Northwest 27th Avenue, with Gimenez saying Miami-Dade couldn’t afford more rail now but could convert the bus depots and dedicated lanes for trains if the county was able to find the money in later years.

For its study of the north corridor, state consultant WSP USA concluded that creating a similar dedicated lane for buses on Northwest 27th Avenue would be too disruptive to existing traffic. By sticking with an extended rail system, traffic could continue on the roadway while trains moved back and forth above.

To cut costs, WSP USA recommended just spending $870 million to acquire land needed for the full 13-mile rail extension but construct just two miles of new elevated track. That would extend the system to Northwest 119th Street, which is the northern boundary of Miami Dade College’s campus there.

The Gimenez administration is backing that phased approach, and pointing to the fact consultants picked different transit modes for the corridors in justifying the shift from bus to rail along 27th Avenue.

“We have to go with what the studies recommend,” said Alice Bravo, Gimenez’s transportation director.

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