Miami-Dade County

Looser rules on transit tax bringing ‘Freebee’ shuttles to cities. Is Uber next?

Pinecrest offers “Freebee”

On Wednesday, January 16, 2019, Pinecrest mayor, Joseph M. Corradino, led in the official ribbon-cutting ceremony of the "Freebee" shuttle service.
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On Wednesday, January 16, 2019, Pinecrest mayor, Joseph M. Corradino, led in the official ribbon-cutting ceremony of the "Freebee" shuttle service.

The latest trend in Miami-Dade transit has tax dollars fueling some of the smallest shuttles available.

On Wednesday, the suburban village of Pinecrest unveiled a pair of six-seat electric carts offering free door-to-door rides for the city of fewer than 20,000 people.

The “Freebee” shuttles come from a company that had mostly limited its complimentary rides to popular restaurant districts in the Miami area, where advertising revenue from placards on the vehicles generated enough money to turn a profit.

Now Miami-Dade is making transportation dollars available for the service, allowing small cities without the population to justify a trolley service to pay for short-hop rides instead.

“Initially, only the most prosperous cities had the money for the service,” said Javier Betancourt, director of the Citizens Independent Transportation Trust, the county board that oversees the transportation tax.

Freebee’s early service in Key Biscayne and Coral Gables also offered the affluent residents that appeal to advertisers willing to pay to have their brands on the shuttles. With Freebee and competitors now able to chase cities’ share of county transportation dollars, shuttle options are expected to spread.

“Almost every municipality in Miami-Dade is talking to us, from Miami Gardens down to Homestead,” said Freebee partner Jason Spiegel. The University of Miami graduate co-founded the Freebee company in 2012 as a mobile advertising service that offered rides in South Beach and Miami’s Brickell Avenue.

Riders are asked to download an app that allows them to request a pickup within a zone that runs from U.S. 1 to Southwest 57th Avenue within city limits. The area includes the Dadeland North and Dadeland South Metrorail stations.

The electric-powered vehicles look like oversized golf carts, with crank-down windows and room for five passengers.

Pinecrest plans to have as many as three shuttles running from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays, the earliest start yet for a Freebee service. The hope is to keep residents from having to drive to the nearby busway or Metrorail stations, which routinely run out of spaces during the morning commute.

Miami-Dade had been in talks with Uber for a similar offer in 2017, with the ride-hailing company providing free, short rides to and from Metrorail stations. Uber had hoped to roll out the service in exchange for Miami-Dade waiving a portion of the $4 million in fines that drivers had accumulated while the company was lobbying to rewrite taxi laws to allow its app-based service. While the county’s Transportation Department backed the free rides, county commissioners opted for a cash settlement from Uber instead.

Riders would have signed up for the Uber rides using the company’s app, rather than waiting for a ride at designated spots on the street, like they would for a bus. That kind of “on-demand” service had been ineligible for the main source of transit dollars in Miami-Dade: the county’s half-percent sales tax dedicated to transportation, which generates nearly $300 million a year.

Attendees at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for Pinecrest’s “Freebee” shuttle got a chance to inspect the electric cars Wednesday. Carl Juste

Last month, Miami-Dade enacted an ordinance that added “on-demand” transportation to the services eligible for the “half-penny” tax.

The change in county law could give Uber another opening to become a government-funded transit option. The San Francisco-based company in 2016 launched a subsidy arrangement with Altamonte Springs and four other Central Florida cities that had the governments paying for 20 to 25 percent of an Uber fare when someone wanted to go from one city to another.

Javi Correoso, Uber’s lobbyist and public affairs director in Miami, called the new law “an opportunity” to use Uber to “expand transportation options for Miami-Dade residents.”

Cities collect about 20 cents of every dollar generated from the tax, and the larger ones use the money to operate free municipal trolley systems. For smaller municipalities like Pinecrest, there aren’t enough potential riders to justify a trolley circulating along a route through the village.

While Coral Gables spends more than $2 million on a trolley system that attracts about 5,000 riders a day, Freebee expects to collect less than $200,000 a year transporting fewer than 200 passengers a day.

Freebee already has municipal deals in place in Coral Gables, Key Biscayne, Miami Lakes and in a special business-taxing district in Miami’s Coconut Grove. Each has used local funds to subsidize the rides, but now the cities can tap into the transportation tax to expand the services.

About half of the money for Pinecrest and pending deals with Palmetto Bay and other cities comes from state dollars applied for by the county’s Transportation Planning Organization, a board of elected officials that supervises federal and state transportation dollars.

While transportation-tax dollars flow regularly, the state money from the planning board is more limited because Miami-Dade must compete for it with other counties. The planning board secured dollars for the shuttles as “demonstration projects” to determine if the demand is there to continue them.

Miami-Dade’s Transportation and Public Works Department plans to use federal dollars to pay for five-seat shuttles to give rides to and from three Metrorail stations: Dadeland North, South and Civic Center. Pickups and drop-offs would be limited to a two-mile radius from the stations. The department is preparing to ask for companies to bid on the service, which could expand using the county transportation tax if the shuttles prove popular.

Alice Bravo, the department’s director, said a main aim is to target people who are driving short distances to grab a train.

“I don’t want someone living in a high-rise four blocks away from Dadeland taking up a parking space,” she said.

This article was updated to correct the planned source of funds for a proposed shuttle from three Miami-Dade Metrorail stations. The shuttles would be funded through a federal transportation grant. The updated story also added details about the funding for similar city shuttles. They are being funded through a mix of county transportation-tax dollars and state grants secured by the Miami-Dade Transportation Planning Organization.