Miami-Dade County

A better bus system in South Dade — but first, a light-rail revolt.

A Miami-Dade bus pulls away from a Homestead stop on the dedicated Busway, which has reduced travel times in South Miami-Dade.
A Miami-Dade bus pulls away from a Homestead stop on the dedicated Busway, which has reduced travel times in South Miami-Dade.

Miami-Dade's $115 million plan to modernize bus travel in the southern part of the county didn't anticipate one key obstacle: a political revolt by local leaders demanding a new railway instead.

Leaders of Homestead, Palmetto Bay and other suburban cities have refused to support Miami-Dade even pursuing federal dollars to build new bus stations for their residents unless county officials agree to design the facilities as train depots, too.

Citing a failed 2002 pledge to extend Metrorail along the South Dade Busway, a 20-mile stretch of highway reserved for buses running to Florida City, the local coalition insisted Miami-Dade agree to fund a study on how to build light rail instead.

The idea of a transit future centered on bus travel is such a downer in southern Dade that the deal requires the Busway be renamed the Transitway in an area where morning commutes to Miami can cross the two-hour mark.

“Unless you're talking about light rail, don't bother coming to South Dade talking about bigger buses,” said Kionne McGhee, the state representative who led the charge against the county bus improvements. “There's not a single pastor, a single mayor, a single city council member who is asking for bus. They're all asking for rail.”

A draft of the four-page deal requires county transportation officials to persuade the Metropolitan Planning Organization to fund a study on light rail in southern Miami-Dade. In return, the mayors of five cities would provide crucial local endorsements for the county’s application for a competitive $30 million federal bus grant.

“Yes, there was a revolt,” McGhee said. “We came out strong against the bus. Because people were promised a rail.”

The backlash against what some county leaders see as the most achievable option for improving commutes in Miami-Dade — a system known as “bus rapid transit” — also captures the pressure on politicians to promise weary commuters relief through pricey rail expansions.

“People don’t like to take buses,” said Miami-Dade Commissioner Xavier Suarez, who is advocating a major expansion of rail across Miami-Dade. “Unless they have no alternative.”

In January, the MPO, a joint transportation board of county and city officials, released a study recommending the county’s first system of bus rapid transit go to the Busway. Known as BRT, the approach involves running buses on dedicated roads like the Busway, but without the traffic lights that currently stall commuters as motorists from busy U.S. 1 cross onto side streets.

The MPO report calls for finishing the current light-synchronization project on the route, as well as elevating some intersections to allow cars to pass underneath the Busway. Modernized stations also play a big role in BRT efficiency, with passengers purchasing tickets at kiosks like they would for a train and then boarding at once on platforms level with the bus doors.

“The bias against BRT almost always comes from people who have no experience with BRT,” said Paul Schwiep, head of the board that oversees the half-percent sales tax funding much of Miami-Dade's transit system. “I think people are going to be very, very pleasantly surprised at what a dramatic departure it’s going to be from just a bus.”

Since it requires no track or heavy cars and Miami-Dade already has the dedicated road, creating a BRT in South Dade would be significantly cheaper than building light rail. Documents from the county’s transportation department estimate a light-rail system along the Busway would cost about $1.5 billion, while BRT improvements could be had for about $115 million.

The MPO study, created by consultant Gannett Fleming, estimated that BRT would cost as much as $21 million a year to operate, compared to $46 million for light rail. While it’s far more expensive, light rail also is predicted to easily outpace BRT’s appeal in southern Dade. The study forecasts an additional 2.5 million Busway commuters with a new light-rail system, but only 1.6 million with BRT, giving light rail a nearly 60 percent edge.

Daniella Levine Cava, the Miami-Dade commissioner whose district includes southern Dade, has been a top advocate for BRT’s potential and was the driver behind the recent MPO study. But she’s also backing the move to declare BRT a stop-gap on the Busway until light rail can be funded.

“South Dade believes they were hoodwinked,” she said. “I am going with the cities on this. I want light rail, too.”

Part of the deal to which McGhee and the mayors of Cutler Bay, Florida City, Homestead, Palmetto Bay and Pinecrest agreed requires Miami-Dade to design the new BRT stations in a way that they can serve a future light-rail line. None of the grant money can be used to purchase new buses, either. “Everything they spend on the bus line needs to be reusable for light rail,” said Edward Silva, manager of Palmetto Bay, which scheduled a town hall Wednesday night on the issue.

Miami-Dade voters approved the transit tax in 2002 after elected leaders promised an historic expansion of Metrorail throughout the county, including to Florida City. But the forecasts proved severely flawed, and county leaders have since scrapped almost the entire rail plan beyond a two-mile extension to Miami International Airport completed in 2012.

But since then, there have been new rail initiatives that have captured political support and, in one case, actual tax dollars.

Last summer, county commissioners pledged $14 million toward expanding Tri-Rail from 79th Street to downtown Miami, a route already covered by Metrorail. Commissioners Esteban “Steve” Bovo, chair of the county’s transit committee, wants to convert an east-west cargo line into commuter rail, and commissioners next week are slated to consider an agreement to jump-start the stalled Bay Link line between Miami and South Beach.

Meanwhile, the county push to bring the region’s most advanced bus system to South Dade found few fans among local leaders.

“We’re looking at what we need for the next several decades,” Pinecrest Mayor Cindy Lerner said of the BRT proposal. “That’s what Miami-Dade leaders have failed to do.”