Miami-Dade commissioners moved the county closer to building a transit link between Miami and Miami Beach, authorizing a bidding process for the project and approving a ban on participation by Chinese train companies.
“We haven’t done anything substantial for transit in a long, long time,” said Commissioner Esteban “Steve” Bovo. “We need to see a bulldozer rip up dirt and actually do something.”
Wednesday’s vote was a partial victory for Genting, the Malaysian casino company with property on the Miami waterfront. In April, Genting submitted a proposal to build and operate a monorail between Miami and Miami Beach, using a mix of government and private dollars to fund the roughly $400 million project.
That request gave Miami-Dade the option of rejecting the proposal or allowing Genting to compete with other bidders for the Beach link at a time when the county is paying a consultant to study transit options for the corridor.
While the Wednesday vote gives Genting the competition it wanted, it also faces the loss of one of its partners. The gambling giant had proposed using monorail trains from China’s BYD company. Bid language proposed by Mayor Carlos Gimenez is designed to eliminate that option after backlash from fellow Republicans, including Florida Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, against giving China a role in Miami transit.
Genting has not revealed its next steps, nor whether its original numbers could still work without the relatively lower costs that come with Chinese trains.
Miami-Dade inserted language in the bid documents that requires bidders to comply with a proposed federal law designed to keep Chinese train companies out of U.S. transit projects. Untested in the courts, the bill is designed to stymie companies like BYD and other Chinese firms from increasing their existing footprints in the United States. BYD is already a supplier of electric buses in the U.S., and is pursuing monorail projects around the country.
The language barring Chinese firms from the Beach project comes after increased interest by Gimenez and other Miami-Dade leaders in Chinese transit companies. Gimenez took a tour of train and bus makers in China last year, and had a meeting with Genting about the potential Beach bid. Another county delegation made a similar transit tour through China this summer.
Privately, Gimenez said his 2018 trip sapped his previous enthusiasm for a Chinese-made train in Miami-Dade. While he recommended Genting’s initial proposal with BYD as “viable” and worth considering, on Wednesday he said he was glad to prevent Chinese firms from bidding.
“I didn’t like the idea of Chinese ‘rolling stock’ anymore than you did,” Gimenez said, using a term for transit vehicles. “I also share your concerns about what’s happening with that particular country, not only in trying to take our technology but also infiltrating and penetrating our technology.”
The bid documents allow for a range of transit options for the four-mile route between mainland Miami, where Genting has owned the former Miami Herald waterfront property for eight years, and the end of the MacArthur Causeway in South Beach. Options being studied by the Parsons engineering firm as part of the county’s 2016 SMART Plan include rapid-transit buses running on dedicated lanes, extending the existing Metromover system, monorail and light rail. The Chinese restriction applies only to trains, not buses.
Bidders will have about six months to respond with proposals, and Gimenez expects to recommend a winner in the spring of 2020. The commission could also reject all bids and start fresh.
The timeline could let the current commission resolve a transit debate that’s been underway for decades, as Miami-Dade sought a transit solution beyond regular buses for one of the busiest routes in the county.
In the past, Miami Beach has resisted a “Baylink” rail route between between downtown Miami and the resort city. But on Wednesday, City Manager Jimmy Morales said Miami Beach embraces the transit link but wants to make sure the county remains open to all ideas from bidders.
“We believe this process should be data-driven, not vendor-driven,” he told commissioners.
Gimenez won approval of the bidding process after agreeing to launch a similar request for proposals for a competing transit corridor on Northwest 27th Avenue. That route had once been slated for a Metrorail expansion, and leaders representing the area see transit funding elsewhere as one more broken promise for the majority-black neighborhoods in the area.
“To me and my community, this appears to be another slap in the face for the North Corridor,” said Commissioner Barbara Jordan, whose district includes the proposed 27th Avenue route to Miami Gardens. She voted for the Beach bidding process after Gimenez agreed to come back with a request for bids for the North corridor as early as October.
Commissioners Jean Monestime and Xavier Suarez, a candidate to succeed Gimenez in 2020, voted against the Beach process. Monestime said he didn’t like the idea of the Beach corridor getting a jump on the North corridor simply because the county received a private proposal for one and not the other. “I truly don’t understand this rush,” he said.
Bidders on the Beach link must propose price, transit mode, and station locations in Miami and Miami Beach. They also have the option of submitting plans for an extra station on the MacArthur at Watson Island, home to Jungle Island, the Miami Children’s Museum, and a planned residential and commercial complex. They can provide private land to the project, as well as use existing county transit stations for connections. Genting wants to build a new station on the old Herald land, where it also has planned a casino resort.
“They did that because they feel they can have 7,000 to 10,000 people at their door every day,” Gimenez said. “And that’s worth a certain amount of money to them.”