Miami-Dade County

Lobbyist behind Genting’s monorail bid helped mayor block South Dade Metrorail plan

A year before he partnered with the Genting casino developer to pitch the county on a monorail to Miami Beach, lobbyist Ralph Garcia-Toledo played an insider role in helping Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez defeat a $1.3 billion Metrorail extension to South Dade.

Garcia-Toledo, chairman of Gimenez’s campaign-donor operation in 2016, accompanied the mayor and county transit chief Alice Bravo in five private meetings with elected officials, according to Bravo’s office and Garcia-Toledo. The officials held seats on a Miami-Dade transportation board that was deciding between a rail expansion that county consultants said wasn’t financially viable and the administration’s proposal for a $243 million system of modernized rapid-transit buses that would leave money to build transit projects elsewhere.

“He told me he felt strongly about the buses, which happened to coincide with my opinion,” Gimenez said of Garcia-Toledo, a regular donor in county races and finance chairman for the mayor’s reelection campaign. “He has influence over commissioners.”

Garcia-Toledo’s seat at the table for Gimenez’s push for the county’s first rapid-transit bus system highlights the connections he brings to Genting’s push for the county’s first modern monorail system.

On Wednesday, county commissioners are scheduled to vote on Gimenez’s recommendation to accept Genting’s proposal to launch an accelerated bidding contest to build a transit system between downtown Miami and Miami Beach. The Beach and South Dade routes are two of the six corridors identified in the county’s 2016 Strategic Miami Area Rapid Transit study effort — best known as the SMART Plan.

Garcia-Toledo is the president of Aqualand Development Ltd. Co., a company listed alongside Genting and Chinese electric-vehicle maker BYD as members of the “Miami Beach Monorail Consortium.” The vice president of Aqualand is Jesse Manzano-Plaza, a longtime Genting lobbyist and Gimenez’s 2016 campaign manager. Garcia-Toledo is registered to lobby for his own firm, G-T Construction, but not for Genting or any other company.

On May 2, the consortium submitted a confidential proposal to the Gimenez administration to build a monorail between Miami Beach and downtown Miami, where Genting wants to open a casino along the proposed transit route.

garcia-toledo and manzano-plaza.jpg
Three leaders of Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s 2016 reelection campaign share a light moment before the swearing in of Miami Gardens Mayor Oliver Gilbert as the new chairman of the Transportation Planning Organization on Feb. 21, 2019. From left to right are Ralph Garcia-Toledo, who was Gimenez’s volunteer finance chairman; Brian Goldmeier, the hired fund-raiser for the 2016 race; and Jesse Manzano-Plaza, the campaign manager. Garcia-Toledo and Manzano-Plaza are part of a proposal by Genting to build and operate a county monorail system. DOUGLAS HANKS dhanks@miamiherald.com

The details remain secret under county and state law governing proposals designated as “unsolicited” by a local government. Under those rules, accepting an unsolicited proposal triggers a procurement process allowing other bidders to try and beat the original offer. The county does not have to accept any of the bids; it can choose not to build the project or start the bidding process again.

Garcia-Toledo said his work helping Gimenez win support for the administration’s SMART initiative for South Dade in July 2018 did not present a conflict for his later role as a proposer for a rail project on the Beach SMART corridor.

“That is ridiculous,” Garcia-Toledo said in a written response to the conflict question. He pointed out that the county’s consultant for the South Dade corridor, AECOM, concluded last year that rapid-transit buses were the most viable option for South Dade. The report said the suburban commuting route lacked the density that would make a 20-mile Metrorail extension competitive for federal transportation grants.

“I had no involvement in the technical decision outlined in the AECOM study,” Garcia-Toledo said, and those conclusions led to Gimenez advocating for rapid-transit buses in South Dade.

Gimenez proposed South Dade’s rapid-transit bus line as a waypoint toward rail, allowing the county to build the daily ridership needed to compete for hefty federal transportation grants. The South Dade vote represented one of the most politically charged transit votes since Gimenez became mayor in 2011. It asked county leaders to endorse an option other than the South Dade Metrorail extension pitched voters in the 2002 referendum that created a half-percent sales tax for transportation projects.

Ahead of the vote by the 25-member Transportation Planning Organization, Gimenez and Bravo had to head off an effort by some South Dade mayors and county representatives to insist Miami-Dade commit to building Metrorail before moving onto other SMART corridor votes.

Coral Gables commissioner Vince Lago, a member of the transportation board, met with Garcia-Toledo, Bravo and AECOM staffers working on the county’s South Dade study. “Their argument was that this [bus plan] was the only financially viable option at their disposal ... that they wouldn’t have money left over” after a vote to extend Metrorail.

The revelation that a political ally of Gimenez was a partner in a rail effort for a different SMART corridor has drawn harsh statements from South Dade’s Metrorail advocates, who complained the county mayor refused to consider a smaller rail segment to ease cost concerns.

The “proposal to benefit a casino company, conveniently labeled ‘unsolicited’ to skirt the sunshine laws, with one partner your former campaign finance director ... is why our county cannot be trusted to make good use of the people’s hard-earned tax money,” former Cutler Bay mayor Peggy Bell said in a statement.

Garcia-Toledo works for Genting under a construction-management contract for the casino company’s agreement with Miami-Dade to build a 300-room hotel above the county’s bus depot and Omni Metromover station. Genting agreed to upgrade both, while paying Miami-Dade millions in rent.

The Metromover station sits next to the 14-acre waterfront property that once housed the Miami Herald. Genting purchased it in 2011 for $236 million in its bid to build the country’s largest casino in Miami. That effort stalled in Tallahassee when lawmakers declined to expand the state’s casino rules. The former Herald property sits along the proposed transit route to the Beach — a project the county has been studying since the 1980s and which used to go by the shorthand “Baylink.”

Genting’s property could give it a unique advantage in the competition for a beach transit project, since it could provide real estate for a station Miami-Dade would otherwise have to purchase. Eileen Higgins, the Miami-Dade commissioner who represents the Beach side of the proposed route, met with Garcia-Toledo and Manzano-Plaza about two weeks before Genting submitted its monorail proposal. While Higgins said the future bid didn’t come up during the meeting about the Beach corridor, she said the Genting plan could be promising.

“This is a big property owner. In the beginning, I thought this was so unscrupulous. Then I said: Calm down,” Higgins said. “They may be able to provide a better solution. They own all the land that could be ideal” for a transit station.

The Genting proposal could prompt Miami-Dade to vote on a transit option for the Beach before a tax-funded consultant finishes its study of the SMART corridor. The Parsons engineering firm has narrowed the options to extending the existing Metromover system from Miami to the Beach, creating a new monorail or light-rail line, or building a rapid-transit bus line similar to what was approved in South Dade. The 2020 budget Gimenez plans to propose Tuesday states “the Beach Corridor consultant teams will complete preliminary engineering and environmental evaluation of the transit alternatives and recommend a preferred alternative” by the fall.

“I don’t know how much relevance the study will have,” Gimenez said. He pointed to county rules triggered when Miami-Dade accepts an unsolicited proposal, including a 120-day window for other bidders to submit competing proposals. “We have to follow certain parameters.”

Jennifer Moon, the deputy mayor appointed to oversee transit on July 1, said the administration doesn’t want to hold up a promising transit plan for the sake of the Parsons report. “If you’ve gotten a really good proposal that you want to pursue , and you want to have a competition based on that proposal, you don’t want to stop that to wait for the study to be finished,” she said.

Gimenez first revealed bare details about the Genting monorail plan last week with the July 3 release of a memo recommending the county accept the proposal. The release coincided with scheduling a July 10 vote by the County Commission on whether to launch the bidding process needed by Genting and partners to allow other bidders to compete with the still-secret plan. The seven-day gap between the proposal being revealed and facing its first vote prompted Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber to ask for a delay, saying the “accelerated timeline poses challenges.”

The scheduled monorail vote falls in the middle of a county trip to Asia to visit transit facilities, including a tour Thursday of BYD’s new “Skyrail” monorail in Shenzhen. Paid for by the Transportation Planning Organization, the trip’s delegation includes Bravo and board director Aileen Bouclé. “How do I get my questions answered when everybody is in Asia,” said Higgins, who declined requests to join the delegation. “They really wanted me to go.”

Genting has been laying the groundwork for its Beach corridor proposal for at least a year. Commission Chairwoman Audrey Edmonson, whose district includes the Miami side of the proposed monorail route, said last week that she met with Garcia-Toledo and Manzano-Plaza in China last year about the Beach corridor but declined to provide details, citing county confidentiality rules on Genting’s unsealed proposal. “I’m not breaking any laws,” she said.

Edmonson’s meeting occurred on a two-week county trade mission to Asia in May 2018. GImenez led the delegation, and the trip included tours of transit systems that might work in Miami, including inspecting an automated bus designed to resemble a train. Garcia-Toledo said he asked Genting to arrange a demonstration of the vehicle for the mayor and county officials in Zhouzhou. Garcia-Toledo and Manzano-Plaza were the only two private-sector executives on the visit of the government-owned CRRC facility, according to a list provided by Gimenez’s office.

Days later, Gimenez said he met with Genting Chairman Lim Kok Thay on a Hong Kong cruise ship and discussed the Malaysian casino company’s interest in a potential Baylink project.

On Monday, Gimenez said Garcia-Toledo’s prior work supporting the mayor’s reelection shouldn’t disqualify him from pursuing county business, especially since county commissioners — not the mayor — make final decisions on the transit budget. Miami-Dade does not bar companies doing business with the county from making political donations, and most incumbents count on vendors, lobbyists and developers for the bulk of their donations.

“He’s not a relative of mine, and he’s not a business partner of mine. ... He was involved in my campaign. There were a whole bunch of people involved in my campaign,” Gimenez said. “There’s a process. My people who are analyzing this understand that line. I see no conflict.”

Garcia-Toledo is a longtime county contractor who runs a construction-management firm that has won subcontracts from successful bidders in Miami-Dade.

His firm, G-T Construction, could collect up to $18 million from a 12-year county sewer contract, and was part of a team that in 2017 won what’s now a $22 million consulting contract between engineering firm WSP and Miami-Dade transit. The assignment included the SMART study of the 11-mile western corridor along State Road 836. Gimenez said Monday that Garcia-Toledo also performed subcontractor work on the South corridor.

Bravo’s office said Garcia-Toledo was in five meetings with the transit director and Transportation Planning Organization members last July, and Garcia-Toledo said the mayor led two of those private sessions. Members of AECOM’s South corridor team attended some of the meetings, too.

Miami Gardens Mayor Oliver Gilbert, the current chairman of the Transportation Planning Organization, said he did not question Garcia-Toledo’s role when he joined Bravo and Gimenez for a meeting in Gilbert’s City Hall office on July 10, 2018, ahead of the bus-versus-rail vote. Garcia-Toledo is a supporter of Gilbert’s, and gave $5,000 earlier this year to Common Voices, the political committee helping the mayor’s 2020 campaign for County Commission.

“I know Ralph. It wouldn’t be a stranger” in my office, Gilbert said. “I generally don’t ask people why they’re there. ... I don’t remember Ralph saying much at all. It was mostly the mayor and I talking transportation in general.” On Tuesday, Gilbert added: “Ralph had an interest in transportation. He came with the mayor. He didn’t say much.. I thought it was pretty unremarkable.”

Gilbert missed the Aug. 30, 2018, vote authorizing Miami-Dade to pursue a rapid-transit bus system for South Dade. Lago voted against it. Three other board members on record as attending administration meetings with Garcia-Toledo — County Commissioner Jean Monestime, Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernández and then-North Miami Mayor Smith Joseph — voted with the Gimenez administration in the 15-7 decision.

South Dade remains the only SMART corridor attached to an actual transit project. In June, Miami-Dade invited developers to bid on design and construction work for the 20-mile bus system, which is budgeted at $304 million with a targeted completion in 2022. The project includes 14 iconic bus stations allowing for group boarding and advanced ticket sales, designed to speed buses equipped with bay doors to make quick stops along the express route that connects to the Dadeland South Metrorail station.

The Gimenez administration also received a proposal designated as unsolicited for the South Dade corridor, with British firm Ascendal Group submitting a confidential plan on April 29 for the rapid-transit bus system. It arrived ahead of Miami-Dade launching its bidding process for the bus system. Manzano-Plaza is a registered lobbyist for Ascendal, as is Albert Dotson Jr., who is representing the monorail group as well. Gimenez has until the end of July to recommend the county accept or reject that proposal.

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