Broward’s new transportation tax could help Miami-Dade finally build a rail line north to Miami Gardens, with both counties interested in selecting a single company to build a transit link running from Miami to Fort Lauderdale.
The chairman and top executives of BYD, the Chinese company pursuing a four-mile county monorail line over the MacArthur Causeway to South Beach, met last week with a delegation of elected office holders from Broward and Miami-Dade on a joint tour of transit options in China and Japan.
The week-long tour came eight months after Broward voters approved a 1 percent sales tax to pay for new transportation projects. While Broward and Miami-Dade would have to pay for their own segments, the existence of a new revenue source for the northern leg could make the entire line more attractive to for-profit transit developers.
“Why stop at 215th Street?” Miami-Dade Commissioner Barbara Jordan said Thursday, referring to the conceptual end of the line for a long-stalled rail route on Northwest 27th Avenue. “We need to be planning to work regionally. ... That makes a difference on the cost.”
The joint tour by members of boards overseeing federal transportation dollars in Broward and Miami-Dade included visits with the major train makers in Asia. That included Japan’s Hitachi (maker of Metrorail’s new cars), Chinese and Japanese companies that produce magnetically levitated trains known as “mag lev,” and producers in both countries of modern versions of Miami’s automated “People Mover” elevated shuttle system.
The visit to BYD’s Shenzhen headquarters came a day after Miami-Dade commissioners voted to open competition for a beach transit route after receiving a proposal from BYD and partners for a four-mile monorail line on the MacArthur Causeway between Miami and Miami Beach.
BYD joined Genting, the Malaysian casino developer with waterfront Miami property, and Aqualand, a Miami company led by local lobbyists Ralph Garcia-Toledo and Jesse Manzano-Plaza, in submitting the confidential monorail proposal to the county in May.
The consortium would build and operate a monorail system costing roughly $400 million, with a station on the Genting property and another at an undisclosed South Beach site at Fifth Street and Alton Road, according to a summary Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez provided Miami Beach leaders this week.
The developers would put in more than $150 million, Gimenez said, and seek about $240 million from state and local governments. Miami-Dade would also make yearly payments to the consortium that Gimenez said would be significantly less than what the county expects to pay for a new $300 million rapid-transit bus system in South Dade. The South Dade yearly payments run at close to $11 million starting in 2023.
Gimenez called the plan financially viable when he recommended commissioners invite the monorail group and other transit developers to bid on the Beach route, with a final decision expected in the spring of 2020.
While BYD is part of the Beach bid, leaders of the joint trip with Broward and Miami-Dade officials said the focus of that tour was the 27th Avenue corridor to link the two counties. That could make BYD a key driver in both transit plans, with the Chinese company pitching its SkyRail monorail system as a low-cost rail option.
“BYD is interested in that corridor,” said Hollywood Commissioner Richard Blattner, a member of Broward’s Metropolitan Planning Organization and a delegate on last week’s Asia trip. He said that when the group visited BYD’s Shenzhen headquarters on July 11, Broward leaders said they expected to piggyback on Miami-Dade’s selection of a transit mode and developer.
“We made it clear that when they put those numbers together for Miami-Dade, they need to keep in mind that Broward will be shortly following them,” he said.
Jordan was the only Miami-Dade commissioner who made the trip. Leading the delegation was Miami Gardens Mayor Oliver Gilbert, who is running for Jordan’s commission seat in 2020, when she will be term-limited out.
Blattner said he also met Garcia-Toledo at the BYD headquarters on the China trip. The county contractor served as Gimenez’s finance chairman in 2016, and Manzano-Plaza, a Genting lobbyist, was campaign manager. Garcia-Toledo is registered to lobby for Aqualand and his firm, G-T Construction, but not BYD.
Blattner said he saw Garcia-Toledo only briefly in Shenzhen. “If I talked to him for a minute, it was a lot,” he said. The commissioner said he did not see Manzano-Plaza.
Executives at the Transportation Planning Organization, the Miami-Dade version of the Broward board, declined to provide complete answers when asked whether the Aqualand partners were participating in the BYD visit. “They were not in attendance in any of my meetings,” TPO director Aileen Bouclé said in a brief interview Tuesday outside the agency’s offices.
Asked if she saw the two, Bouclé said “I may have seen them.” She did not respond to an email seeking clarification. Garcia-Toledo and Manzano-Plaza have not responded to questions about BYD or China.
They weren’t the only private-sector executives from Miami to meet up with the Asia delegation.
Lobbyist Jose Fuentes, who has represented Hitachi, was there for the Japan leg, along with Miami-Dade bus vendor Americas Transportation, which runs an express route to the Keys. Hitachi took the Broward and Miami-Dade delegates on its Tokyo monorail during the trip. “If there is a process for monorail in Miami-Dade County,” Fuentes wrote in a text message about Hitachi, “they might compete.”
At BYD headquarters, chairman and founder Wang Chuanfu, one of the most prominent industrialists in China, met with the group from South Florida, according to business cards collected by Bouclé’s staff and provided through a public-records request.
The Chinese train maker’s interest in Miami-Dade drew warnings about potential state-sponsored espionage this week from Florida’s two Republican senators, Marco Rubio and Rick Scott.
In a response Wednesday, Gimenez wrote that he shared the senators’ concerns about “the potential economic and national security threats associated with the use of Chinese technologies” in transit but that laws limit a local government’s ability to pick and choose which foreign companies can bid on infrastructure projects.
He urged the lawmakers to close the “loophole” that only restricts transit deals with state-sponsored Chinese companies if federal transportation grants are involved — a funding source the monorail partnership isn’t proposing in its financial plan. “I believe any prohibition on contracting with Chinese state-sponsored entities — or any other foreign entity deemed to be a national security threat — should apply to state and local governments regardless of whether federal funds are used,” Gimenez wrote.
Gimenez’s office said it did not want a local government to decide which Chinese companies were eligible to do business in public transit. BYD is partially owned by Warren Buffett’s investment fund. It is already a provider of electric buses across the United States. At Thursday’s meeting of Miami-Dade’s transportation board, Gilbert said the tour through China and Japan left him amazed at the level of transit innovation compared to what’s available in the United States.
“We went to Asia to see technologies we could not see here,” Gilbert said. “We went to China and Japan to see what we couldn’t see here.”