More than a decade after a disastrous half-penny transit tax that has produced many broken promises, Miami-Dade leaders Thursday announced bold plans to build six new mass transit lines.
The timetable? Unknown. The funding sources? Yet to be determined. But despite those giant question marks, the optimism from elected officials was overflowing.
“To me, this is really a watershed moment in Miami-Dade County,” said Miami-Dade County Commissioner Dennis Moss. “We are creating a vision for the community as far as transportation is concerned…speaking with one voice.”
Moss’ comments came at a meeting of the Metropolitan Planning Organization, a transit-focused board made up of both county and city elected leaders. The MPO plays a critical role in obtaining federal dollars for local transit projects, and on Thursday MPO members unanimously approved pursuing the six transit lines, collectively known as the “SMART” plan for transit.
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The SMART acronym was coined by Miami City Commissioner and MPO Vice Chair Francis Suarez, and it stands for “Strategic Miami Area Rapid Transit.”
It will likely be several years — at the least — before anything gets built. If and when that happens, the new transit lines would offer commuters new options to get to downtown Miami: those coming from the western suburbs could avoid driving on traffic-clogged State Road 836 and South Miami-Dade residents potentially could be ferried up U.S. 1 by a train that links to the existing Dadeland South station.
Other lines would run along Kendall Drive in southwest Miami-Dade, Northwest 27th Avenue in Miami Gardens, and near Biscayne Boulevard in northeast Miami-Dade.
The sixth line would connect urban neighborhoods such as the Design District and Wynwood with South Beach, through a train running across the MacArthur Causeway.
If those routes all sound a bit familiar, it’s because county voters already endorsed them back in 2002 — when they approved a half-percent sales tax increase that was supposed to add up to 88.9 additional miles to Miami-Dade’s Metrorail system.
All six of the currently envisioned SMART lines were included in the rail expansion promised to voters back then. But instead of a huge Metrorail expansion, the community only got a 2.4 mile- extension connecting the rail system to Miami International Airport.
A key reason the rail improvements never happened: county leaders spent much of the half-penny money on a backlog of maintenance work needed for existing transit equipment — problems that had been ignored for decades. Hundreds of transit workers also got double-digit raises, and staffers or secretaries from the offices of some county commissioners suddenly landed new jobs in transit.
“It was a bait and switch, without a doubt,” said Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who was elected in 2011.
Meanwhile, traffic in Miami-Dade has steadily gotten worse.
It was a bait and switch, without a doubt
Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez
With this new transit plan, Gimenez said, a real expansion will happen. Miami-Dade has a new sense of unity surrounding the need for these six lines, he said, and is committed to using any and all funding sources or strategies to pay for them. Certainly, the county will be pursuing federal grant funding, and state funding, but Miami-Dade will also consider public-private partnerships, and may pay for some of the cost with its own transit tax revenues.
“The people of Miami-Dade are asking for relief, need relief, deserve relief,” Gimenez said.
If the transit push gains momentum, it’s possible the county will ask voters to raise the sales tax again to fund more transit, or local communities surrounding the lines might be asked to contribute a portion of their city’s property taxes.
Following Thursday’s MPO vote, the county will now categorize all six transit lines as a top priority, and begin the formal studies that are required to obtain federal funds. Because Metrorail-type stations (known as heavy rail) are extremely expensive, it’s likely that Miami-Dade will try to build light rail (such as a streetcar) or commuter rail (similar to existing Tri-Rail trains). Bus rapid transit (buses with their own dedicated lanes) is another possibility being explored.
Gimenez has promised to use his political bully pulpit to build support for the transit expansion. In his comments to the MPO, he said Miami-Dade’s focus will be on implementing cutting-edge transit technology.
“We don’t want to be the last to buy a flip phone,” Gimenez said. “This is a 21st century city, and we want 21st century solutions to our transportation network.”
Miami-Dade County Commissioner Esteban “Steve” Bovo voted for the new plan as an MPO member, but he did so while expressing serious concerns about the wisdom of pursuing six different transit lines at once. Until now, Bovo has championed the idea of building an east-west line near State Road 836 first — possibly using existing CSX cargo tracks to reduce the cost.
“We needed to build one thing,” Bovo told fellow MPO board members. “The residents in Miami-Dade County have zero confidence in us, zero. We need to build one thing in order to build that confidence, and then move forward.”
To show the dangers of endless planning and transit studies, Bovo showed up to the MPO meeting with stacks upon stacks of transit studies from the past 10 or 15 years. He placed them on the dais during debate — the stacks towering so high that his face was partially obscured.
“Perhaps it’s very politically correct to go after all of them at the same time,” Bovo said. “We’ll be here ten years before something gets built, and that’s my fear.”
For years, county politicians have competed over the issue of which rail line gets built first, and the infighting limited the county’s ability to make a unified push for state or federal funding. In north Miami-Dade, the black community was promised a 27th Avenue expansion more than 30 years ago — leading black commissioners to push back against the idea of another area getting rail first.
The new SMART plan has, for the moment, created a team mentality. As the plan gets past the study phase, certain rail sections will probably get funded and begin construction before others, but Mayor Gimenez promised the MPO board he is committed to funding “each and every one.”
For County Commissioner Barbara Jordan, whose district has waited decades for the 27th Avenue “North Corridor” line, the commitment to build all six lines was key.
“I’m on board with getting six corridors done,” Jordan said. “But unless the North Corridor is the first, I’m not on with one.”