Miami-Dade County

Big ideas abound for better Miami-Dade transit service — but how to pay for it?

The Metromover leaves Third Street Station.
The Metromover leaves Third Street Station. MIAMI HERALD FILE

In gridlocked Miami, mass transit has become more necessary as money to pay for it has become tighter.

So while there finally appears to be enough interest from community leaders to take a serious look at improving public transportation, the underlying problem will be how to find money for future upgrades.

“What we really need are additional ideas about how we’re going to fund these projects,” Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez said Thursday. “Without that, our vision will never become reality.”

Gimenez spoke at a daylong transportation summit organized by the Citizens’ Independent Transportation Trust, with support from the county transit department, which runs Metrorail, Metromover and Metrobus. The event, however, took a broader view, with sessions on how to promote development near transit hubs and how to design more livable neighborhoods where people do more walking and cycling. Presenter after presenter showed statistics from public-opinion services and quality-of-life studies that show people in Miami, especially young millenials in the urban core, want to spend less time and money in traffic and want to feel safe taking public transit.

But the inescapable theme was how to finance big-ticket projects to expand public transportation so that fewer people have to drive cars on already congested roads. The federal government, which traditionally paid for construction, has seen its funds dry up and is no longer a reliable source, said Gimenez, who met with U.S. Department of Transportation administrators when he traveled to Washington in October.

“We’re going to, frankly, have to figure out how to do it ourselves,” he said Thursday.

That means emphasizing projects that are less expensive than extending Metrorail, even though neighborhoods north, west and south of downtown were long promised service. The county is studying several corridors in those communities for bus rapid transit, in which buses are given dedicated lanes to act more like a rail system — without as hefty a price tag.

Benjamin de la Peña, director of community and national strategy for the Knight Foundation and an urban planner who has studied successful bus-transit systems, said a well-designed system also requires quick fare collection — by charging customers before they board, rather than when they step in — and connections between buses and other modes of transportation. Also key is choosing popular routes and making travel convenient. It’s better to have a no-frills bus without any stops running along a congested thoroughfare than a fancy bus with many stops along a side street.

“If you water it down, you get empty buses,” he said.

That approach, though, requires dedicating prime real estate to buses at the expense of space for cars to drive and park. Ysela Llort, director of the county’s transit department and a former traffic engineer, said Miami-Dade knows how to create bus rapid transit, and has looked at doing so along Northwest 27th Avenue, for example. State Road 836, better known as the Dolphin Expressway, is also under consideration.

“What’s limiting the implementation of those projects are really two sets of decisions,” she said. “One is where the money is going to come from. And, secondly, where they’re going to be put in. You’re going to have to make some trade-off decisions on how you use the road.”

One way to finance bus rapid transit and other projects, including rail extensions or a potential link between downtown Miami and Miami Beach, is through public-private partnerships, in which private concessionaires design, build, operate and finance all or part of a project, in exchange for a share of revenues. In a bus rapid transit system, de la Peña said several companies could partner with the government — one to collect fares, another to operate the station.

A new rail line in Maryland is being financed by local, state and federal agencies — along with a private contractor that is building the extension and will run it once it’s completed, said Jeffrey Ensor, director of project delivery and finance for the Maryland Transit Administration and one of Thursday’s presenters. The government bought and owns the land and will keep certain responsibilities, including determining changes to service. Another rail line, bringing Washington Metro service to Dulles Airport, is being financed by public agencies and tolls paid by drivers who use an airport highway.

Out-of-town transportation administrators urged Miami-Dade to plan early for projects and be persistent, even if past efforts have failed.

“We had nothing under construction or under contract five years ago,” said Phil Washington, chief executive of the Denver Regional Transportation District and chairman of the American Public Transportation Association. He showed off a map of a web of rail and bus lines that have been built in Denver since. “If you invest in infrastructure, the payoff is there,” he said.

Miami-Dade Commissioner Esteban “Steve” Bovo, incoming chairman of the commission’s transportation committee, said he intends to do more than ask for studies in his two-year term leading the panel.

“I do not want to get to 2016 without seeing at least one project moving forward,” he said.

An earlier version of this story misstated which agency operates Metrorail, Metromover and Metrobus.