Miami-Dade County

Casino giant Genting and Chinese firm propose monorail linking Miami with Miami Beach

A monorail system operating in Seattle is one of the examples cited in a recent report by a Miami-Dade consultant on the possibility of bringing the transit option to Miami and Miami Beach. Casino giant Genting is partnering with a Chinese firm to convince Miami-Dade to give them a contract to build the monorail system.
A monorail system operating in Seattle is one of the examples cited in a recent report by a Miami-Dade consultant on the possibility of bringing the transit option to Miami and Miami Beach. Casino giant Genting is partnering with a Chinese firm to convince Miami-Dade to give them a contract to build the monorail system.

The casino company with plans for a Miami resort has partnered with a Chinese company to pursue a tax-funded contract to build a monorail system between downtown and Miami Beach.

A May 17 letter from the office of Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez lists Genting and Chinese company BYD as proposers behind the confidential “Miami Beach Monorail Unsolicited Proposal.”

Also part of the venture is a company formed by the top leaders of the mayor’s 2016 reelection campaign. Finance chairman Ralph Garcia-Toledo and campaign manager Jesse Manzano Plaza, two lobbyists who joined Gimenez in a 2018 tour of a Chinese train factory, are partners in Aqualand Development Ltd., the third company listed as a member of the “Miami Beach Monorail Consortium.”

The letter from Gimenez deputy mayor Ed Marquez to the consortium’s lawyer and lobbyist, Al Dotson Jr., does not reveal the contents of the “unsolicited” proposal for the project or any details beyond the name of the project and the proposers. Recent changes to Florida’s open-records laws exempt unsolicited proposals from would-be government vendors until internal reviews can be completed. The Herald obtained the letter Thursday.

That leaves the public in the dark on what’s sure to be one of the most expensive infrastructure projects in recent memory for Miami-Dade, where regions across the county have been competing for transportation dollars to extend rail to their areas. Last year, the Gimenez administration championed a $243 million rapid-transit bus system for South Dade, arguing that spending $1.3 billion to extend Metrorail to Florida City would leave no money to expand transit in other corridors.

It’s not known how many millions of dollars Miami-Dade would need to pay Genting and Shenzen-based BYD to build and possibly operate a monorail linking downtown Miami with South Beach. Long called “baylink,” the wish-list transit route has never gotten past planning documents amid resistance from Miami Beach, funding issues, and the complications of bringing rail across Biscayne Bay. Miami-Dade has not identified funding for a beach transit system.

People familiar with the Genting proposal expect the company to offer a piece of its Miami land holdings to house a transit station, given the former Herald site’s prime location near the Adrienne Arsht Metromover station and at the start of the MacArthur.

Genting once proposed the nation’s largest casino on the Herald property but needs changes to state gambling laws to build. In its bid to become a transit developer, Genting is proposing a rail technology made famous by Disneyland but now part of a budding generation of high-speed trains gaining some traction in Asia. BYD Motors, a U.S. subsidiary of a Chinese transportation conglomerate that’s traded on the Hong Kong stock exchange, makes monorails, electric buses and electric cars. Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway owns about 25 percent of BYD Co’s Hong Kong stock. The company has become the largest marker of electric cars in China, with the Chinese government backing the rise with significant subsidies.

“BYD is an entrepreneurial private company, not government owned or controlled,” Dotson said Friday.

Monorail systems exist far and wide, from the pokey sightseeing option at Zoo Miami to a line in Tokyo that ferries passengers back and forth at 50 mph. Manufacturers tout the system as cheaper than traditional train systems like Metrorail, but a recent analysis for Miami-Dade’s Transportation Planning Organization rejected that assertion.

A 2018 county-funded study found building a monorail system between Miami and Miami Beach would cost roughly the same as extending downtown’s existing Metromover tracks across the bay, giving passengers a one-seat ride between both cities. The Parsons report estimated a new monorail system would cost as much as $1.1 billion to build and $18 million a year to operate, with a Beach line for Metromover costing about the same to create and run.

The study also said monorail could move more passengers than Metromover, which would be limited to the two-car configurations that mesh with existing stations throughout Miami. While the consultants expected a new Metromover line between Miami and Miami Beach could carry 500 passengers an hour, monorail could take 1,600 an hour.

The ongoing study envisions an elevated transit line along the MacArthur, with service that moves north into South Beach and, on the mainland, as far north as the Design District.

The Parsons study is part of the ongoing analysis of the Beach corridor, one of six commuting routes that make up the county’s 2016 SMART Plan. Genting opted to submit its corridor proposal well before the county-funded consultants have finished their work analyzing the appropriate transit option for the area. Also being considered is the kind of rapid-transit bus line approved for the South Dade corridor and street cars.

The Genting proposal is one of two bids by foreign-owned companies that make a play for millions of dollars the county hopes to spend each year to expand transit after decades of failed efforts to grow Metrorail into the suburbs. The Ascendal Group, a British company focusing on buses and autonomous vehicles, in April submitted an unsolicited proposal related to the rapid-transit bus plan for the South Dade corridor. That confidential proposal, also revealed in a letter from Gimenez’s office obtained by the Herald, is also temporarily shielded from open-records laws.

Genting’s proposal has been at least a year in the making. In a cruise ship docked in Hong Kong in March of last year, Gimenez attended a reception held by Genting for a county trade mission to Asia that included visits to Chinese and Japanese monorail and train systems. Genting CEO Lim Kok Thay and Gimenez discussed a “baylink” system, Gimenez said in an interview after the trip, and the possibility of Genting investing in one.

That appears to be a reference to a proposal known as a “public-private partnership,” which allows a for-profit company to use its own financing to construct a public works project, operate it, and then make significant profits over multiple decades through annual payments from the government. When a French company wanted to provide upfront funding for a $148 million streetcar system in Miami Beach four years ago, the city expected annual payments from taxpayers could approach $17 million a year.

Gimenez declined to comment on the Genting monorail proposal, citing confidentiality rules for unsolicited proposals.

Manzano-Plaza is a registered lobbyist for Genting. Garcia-Toledo is also a lobbyist who isn’t registered for Genting but is paid by the company as a subcontractor on a local project.

When Gimenez was in China, the two men joined Gimenez for a tour of a train facility that was otherwise open only to elected officials and county staff. Manzano-Plaza and Garcia-Toledo did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Gimenez’s administration has begun a review of the Genting proposal, and has 90 days to make a recommendation to the County Commission.. The proposal remains a secret during this process. After that, the county can reject the proposal or invite other bidders to submit competing baylink plans.

Richard Branson unveiled the first step milestone of "Virgin Trains USA" at the Virgin MiamiCentral station in downtown Miami, Florida, on April 4, 2019.

This post was updated to described BYD as a Chinese firm with U.S. investors.

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