Miami-Dade County

Miami-Dade says it has money to extend Metrorail north, but only if D.C. cooperates

Miami-Dade’s elusive promise of a northern Metrorail route remained alive Thursday on a familiar support system of long-shot possibilities, including Washington agreeing to pick up about half of the $1.9 billion construction tab.

A key transportation board of elected officials unanimously endorsed an elevated Metrorail system on Northwest 27th Avenue to Miami Gardens, rather than monorail, magnetic levitation or other options studied by state consultants for the roughly 10-mile route.

And while the vote by Miami-Dade’s Transportation Planning Organization ratifies Metrorail as the goal for the county’s North Corridor, the discussion highlighted the pessimism about the county actually building a rail extension that’s been studied since the 1990s.

“I’m actually pretty disappointed, because essentially we are exactly where we were,” said County Commissioner Eileen Higgins in criticizing what she saw as a lack of effort to find a cheaper transit option that could more realistically compete for federal transit funds. Though she ultimately voted for the recommendation, Higgins described it as a “risky proposal for heavy rail” and “delusional” for its rosy assumptions that riders could be on the new trains by 2027.

Barbara Jordan, the commissioner representing much of the 27th Avenue corridor, said she wanted to keep the process moving but inserted language requiring staff to come back in the spring with more detailed information on the transit options for the project. She also said board members shouldn’t be so quick to assume extended bureaucratic delays for a Metrorail route that was once approved by federal regulators but was unable to win federal funding through the 2000s.

“I don’t think the timeline is overly optimistic,” she said.

The Metrorail endorsement marks the second milestone in the county’s SMART Plan process, a 2016 initiative that launched consultant studies of six commuting routes across Miami-Dade. The $50 million process, funded by Miami-Dade and Florida, has already yielded one transit plan: a $300 million rapid-transit bus system the transportation board approved for South Dade in August 2018.

Consultants recommended that option for the South Dade route, while mayors and commissioners from the region argued for Miami-Dade to stick with a Metrorail extension promised voters nearly two decades ago during a successful referendum campaign for the county’s half-percent sales tax. Extending Metrorail south would have cost more than $1 billion, and the administration of Mayor Carlos Gimenez in 2018 convinced board members the expense would have left Miami-Dade with too few transit dollars to build the other SMART corridors.

Gimenez did not attend Thursday’s meeting, but his budget chief said Miami-Dade can afford the northern Metrorail route if Washington approves roughly $1 billion in grant dollars and Florida matches the county money. “With appropriate federal and state support, the county can implement heavy rail on the North Corridor,” said Jennifer Moon, the Gimenez deputy mayor overseeing the budget and transit. “That’s not a new statement.”

After the meeting, the transportation board released a detailed financial analysis showing how much building and operating a northern Metrorail system would cost, and what would be left to spend for other SMART projects. The analysis shows Miami-Dade starting with about $9 billion in county money to spend on construction and operations for the corridors over the next 40 years. Once the North’s Metrorail and the South’s bus line are added to the budget, the analysis shows about $3 billion left to spend elsewhere.

Most of the costs come from the new Metrorail route, which would significantly expand the current 25-mile system. Estimated yearly operating and maintenance costs on the 27th Avenue route are $49 million. That amounts to about $3.8 billion over 40 years, compared to less than $700 million for the rapid-transit bus system.

Miami-Dade is seeking a $100 million federal grant for the South Dade system, and expects a decision by the spring. Even without it, the Gimenez administration says it can launch the system with state and local funds.

While the 2002 tax referendum touted a historic expansion of Metrorail to the north, south and beyond, the accompanying transit blueprint showed federal dollars would be required to build the new systems. That hasn’t happened, and Metrorail has only grown by about three miles since the new tax went into effect and produced nearly $3 billion in revenue. The tax’s legacy is helping shape the 2020 race to replace a term-limited Gimenez, since candidate Alex Penelas was mayor in 2002 and led the referendum campaign.

Before Thursday’s vote, residents from the 27th Avenue corridor told board members they didn’t want to see more time go by without the transportation tax helping their community.

“We’ve been promised this since 2002. And the promise has been stalled and denied,” said Marva Lightbourne, a member of the Brownsville Neighborhood Association. “We haven’t had anything tangible for our neighborhood. We need this.”

Doug Hanks covers Miami-Dade government for the Herald. He’s worked at the paper for nearly 20 years, covering real estate, tourism and the economy before joining the Metro desk in 2014.
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