Want to go express from Miami to Miami Beach? Now you can
Florida Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott expressed “grave concerns” and alarm Monday over Miami-Dade County’s considering a Chinese company’s monorail system to connect Miami with Miami Beach, saying the project is vulnerable to espionage from a hostile power.
A letter to County Mayor Carlos Gimenez strikes at the heart of the confidential monorail proposal submitted by casino operator Genting and an affiliate of BYD, the Chinese electric-car maker that also has a monorail arm.
Joined by Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, the two Republican senators wrote, “we urge you to consider the potential dangers to U.S. economic and national security posed by contracting with Chinese-backed enterprises to carry out infrastructure work.“
The Genting proposal for the $400 million, four-mile monorail line that would run between Genting’s planned casino site in Miami to the start of South Beach on Fifth Street requires about $240 million in public dollars and an undisclosed yearly payment from the county. Gimenez said the monorail’s yearly operating cost to Miami-Dade will be less than what the county is paying for a $300 million rapid-transit bus system in South Dade.
“While bids by Chinese state-sponsored and subsidized companies may appear competitive in cost, such bids may also expose Florida and our nation to significant risks,” the congressional trio wrote in Friday’s letter.
Genting and partners would build the system, and then operate it under a county contract. BYD is already a significant player in U.S. transportation, with contracts to provide electric buses and other technology across the country.
County officials visited BYD’s Skytrain monorail line in China last week, a trip sponsored by the Transportation Planning Organization. Alice Bravo, Miami-Dade’s transportation director, represented the Gimenez administration on the trip, which included tours of transit options in China and Japan.
In remarks before the Miami Beach City Commission, Gimenez announced he shared concerns about using Chinese technology in Miami-Dade transit. Gimenez went on a transit tour of China and Japan last year, and touted a potential autonomous Chinese-made bus ahead of the trip. He told Miami Beach commissioners that the trip actually soured him on a potential Chinese venture in Miami-Dade, citing the potential for software “worms” from a transit system breaching the county’s technology firewalls.
“I would be less than frank if I said I didn’t share those concerns,” Gimenez told Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber after Gelber asked him about the letter released that morning. “But there’s only so much we can do as a local government.”
“I went to China last year,“ Gimenez said. “I went in thinking one way, and I came out thinking another way. I have concerns about that.”
Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway is a major shareholder of BYD, which trades on the Hong Kong exchange. In a July 10 letter to Gimenez, a lawyer and lobbyist representing the monorail group noted BYD North America business “is not owned in whole or in part by the Chinese government” and that its stateside manufacturing operations comply with the Buy America provisions tied to federal transit funds.
Gimenez said the monorail proposal departs from most major transit projects because it does not anticipate using federal funds. That allows Miami-Dade to avoid the federal approval process tied to Washington grants that can cover up to half the government costs of a new rail or bus system.
“I don’t understand how we can do this without significant federal funds,” Miami Beach Commissioner MIchael Góngora said during a Monday meeting where Gimenez laid out the monorail plan. He said the route would run from Genting’s waterfront property in Miami, the former site of the Miami Herald, to government-owned land in Miami Beach at Alton Road and Fifth Street. Genting once proposed building the country’s largest casino at the former Herald site, but has so far failed to win the required changes in state law.
Last week, Miami’s Young Republicans organization slammed the monorail proposal for its China ties. Commissioners Rebeca Sosa and Esteban “Steve” Bovo, Rubio’s closest allies on the 13-member, nonpartisan County Commission, both said they did not want a Chinese firm building transit in Miami-Dade before a vote authorizing Miami-Dade to pursue bids for the Beach transit route.
The senators’ letter warns of a Chinese state plan to use state-subsidized companies to “predatorily dominate mass transit” in the United States and cites BYD’s partnership with the “state-directed” firm Huawei on the monorail as a chief concern.
Last week, Miami-Dade commissioners accepted Gimenez’s recommendation to open up the Beach transit route to bids from the monorail group and others. The monorail proposal was designated “unsolicited” under state law and county rules. The rules allow Gimenez and Miami-Dade commissioners to keep the proposal confidential until competing bids are received.
Last week’s vote authorized Gimenez to draw up a request for proposals for the Beach transit route, with Genting and rivals able to compete for the project Gimenez said proposers could pursue monorail, rapid-transit bus, light rail and monorail — the four modes currently under review in a $10 million state-and-county study of the best transit option for a Miami-to-the-Beach corridor. Gimenez said he expected Miami-Dade commissioners to be making a final decision on the project by March 2020.
“I like competition,” Gimenez said. “I like having different companies from around the world give us their ideas.”