Riding a bus from Miami to South Beach takes twice as long as it would to drive, and providing a better transit option could cost a billion dollars or more.
The quest for some sort of modern mass transit line between Miami and Miami Beach dates back to when Ronald Reagan was president, when the first “baylink” study was completed in 1988. The latest effort was launched two summers ago as part of the Strategic Miami Area Rapid Transit study — best known as the SMART Plan. It’s ramping up in the coming months with community meetings ahead of consultants making a final recommendation by the fall on what’s the best transit choice for linking two of the region’s most popular destinations: downtown Miami and Miami Beach.
Potential solutions under consideration for the beach route include a Disney-style monorail system, high-wire pods summoned by commuters, and Miami-Dade’s first light-rail system. Another alternative is to expand the MacArthur Causeway to accommodate dedicated transit lanes to finally let bus passengers move faster than the cars and trucks constantly slowed by traffic heading back and forth over Biscayne Bay.
One option estimated to cost as much as $1.1 billion would be a historic expansion of the county’s Metromover network, with new northern stations in Miami’s Design District and Midtown area, and extending the elevated system all the way to Miami Beach’s Washington Avenue, just blocks from the ocean.
“The goal is to look at different technologies,” said Miami-Dade transportation director Alice Bravo, “and wean down the number of options.”
Parsons, the California-based consulting firm operating under a $20 million county contract for SMART and other assignments, expects to deliver its final recommendation by the fall. From there, the county’s Transportation Planning Organization — a 25-member board of elected officials that oversees state and federal grants — can either accept the recommendation or pick a different transit mode for the beach corridor.
Board members have already approved a rapid-transit bus system for South Dade, the first of the six SMART corridors to receive a consultant’s recommendation.
Known as “BRT,” the $240 million plan was pitched as a way to bring rail-like speeds and perks to the county’s existing busway that runs from the Metrorail’s Dadeland South stop to Homestead. Rapid-transit buses with platform-level bay doors would stop at express stations where passengers would be required to purchase tickets in advance, allowing for group boarding.
Creating one for Miami and South Beach gets complicated. Parsons said downtown Miami is too congested to consider removing a traffic lane for a new transit system, meaning a rapid-transit bus line would need to compete with traffic as it moved from the Design District area south on its way to cross the bay over the MacArthur.
The Parsons analysis still assumes a dedicated lane on the MacArthur, since traffic is already 50 percent above acceptable levels. To create that lane, Parsons says Miami-Dade may need to widen the bridge, according to emails and interviews.
Bravo said she’s resisted that idea, and that it still could be possible to create dedicated bus lanes out of the existing MacArthur footprint.
“Once we get into the detailed analysis, there might be ways to accommodate extra lanes without a big widening project,” said Bravo, who’s also an engineer. “There’s room for creativity.”
One option under review involves “personal” transit pods that would run along an overhead track using magnetic-levitation — essentially suspended just below the structure. The experimental system out of Israel wasn’t considered in the preliminary 168-page report Parsons submitted in August for the beach corridor. Consultants added “personal rapid transit” at the request of the county. Mayor Carlos Gimenez traveled to Israel and met with executives at Skytran, a company trying to launch the technology.
Gimenez said he had hoped to return to Israel in January to see Skytran in operation, but that the company needed more time before it was ready for a demonstration. “There are things they have to do in order to prove the concept,” Gimenez said. “All I’m doing is looking.”
With vehicles small enough for only a few passengers, “personal” transit systems are touted as lightweight enough to keep construction costs down. Miami-Dade said it does not yet have cost estimates for a personal rapid-transit system.
Monorail is projected to cost about the same as extending Metromover, between $900 million and $1.1 billion. Metromover has the advantage of linking the existing system with new routes, allowing for “one seat” rides between South Beach and the Brickell neighborhood.
Sketches sent to the county Jan. 23 by Parsons project manager Odalys Delgado give a rough look at how the elevated automated shuttle could arrive in Miami Beach. The design shows a Metromover track heading east on Fifth Street, then arriving at a nearby station on Washington Avenue with a “sculptural sloping roof” and a transparent exterior. Passengers would be steps away from buses connecting to the city’s transit system.
In the email obtained through a records request, Delgado emphasized Parsons was “still finalizing” the mock-ups, so they were “not ready to show the public yet.”
On Friday, Gimenez spokeswoman Myriam Marquez noted the Parsons work will be reviewed by an advisory board and at public meetings before heading to the Transportation Planning Organization. “Also, the sketch is a very preliminary draft that only shows concepts of the basic functionality of the facility,” she said.
Monorail, a transit mode most associated with Disney World but in use in Jacksonville, Seattle, Las Vegas and elsewhere, is an automated system like Metromover.
Monorail has the advantage of moving much quicker — a top speed of 55 mph, compared to about 30 mph for Metromover vehicles — and can carry up to 350 passengers per train, compared to 200 for Metromover. But the downside is monorail systems typically can’t maintain the same frequency as a lighter Metromover system, with average waits twice as long, according to a Parsons analysis.
A light-rail line running between Miami and Miami Beach would function as a street-car system, with vehicles able to switch from operating on a track to running on wheels along roadways in areas where tracks aren’t feasible. It’s cheaper than Metromover or a monorail system, with estimated construction costs topping out at $800 million. The prices include construction of at least two new structures alongside the MacArthur to accommodate supports for the tracks.
Picking a plan doesn’t mean the county has the money to build a new transit system. Instead, a vote from the transportation board gives Miami-Dade the authority to pursue the state and federal grants that typically are needed to make a major transit project even feasible. The county is pursuing about $100 million from both Washington and Tallahassee for the South Dade bus system.
Karla Damian, a spokeswoman for Miami-Dade’s transit agency, said the Parsons study of the beach corridor is expected to cost $8 million.
The extended study of the beach route has one transit group complaining of yet more foot-dragging by the county when it could focus on short-term fixes instead.
“Can Miami ever prioritize transit? Prioritizing doesn’t mean building new infrastructure,” said Azhar Chougle, a director at the Miami Transit Alliance. “In other cities, they’re making dedicated bus lanes with cones.”