Ride around Miami and you’re bound to see buses with exteriors designed to resemble old-fashioned streetcars. They’re a convenient, free public transportation option for residents and have become a city staple — but not in Liberty City.
However, on Thursday Miami commissioners voted to institute a new trolley route in one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods. The resolution was approved unanimously. The vote came after the resolution to implement a new Liberty City route was deferred twice due to calls for more study.
The trolleys are expected to be operating within a few weeks.
Liberty City residents have watched new city trolley routes pop up in other areas, and the neglect wasn’t lost on them. Leaders of the Hadley Park Neighborhood Association have kept copies of old city agendas detailing new trolley additions time and time again without any mention of Liberty City — documents they say represent inequity.
The city’s trolley system, which started operation in 2012, will now consist of 13 routes that run through Allapattah, Biscayne, Brickell, Coconut Grove, Coral Way, Flagami, the Health District, Little Haiti, Little Havana, Overtown, Wynwood and now Liberty City.
The new route will connect with the city’s Little Haiti trolley route, the Allapattah Metrorail Station and Miami-Dade County Metrobus routes.
Liberty City has about 50,000 residents, about 78 percent of whom are black, and it is one of the county’s poorest neighborhoods. Despite its name, it is not a city; most of it is within Miami, but it spills across the Miami city limits, with part located in unincorporated Miami-Dade.
Sam Lattimore, president of the Hadley Park Neighborhood Association, said Liberty City has been questioning why other neighborhoods have gotten higher priority for trolley service over the years. He said when that question was raised almost 4 1/2 years ago at a Hadley Park neighborhood meeting, residents were told Miami simply didn’t have the money.
“Why has one of the oldest cities in [Miami-Dade] County been obviously neglected for having a trolley route,” Lattimore said.
Lattimore said Miami Mayor Francis Suarez has been very receptive to residents’ concerns, but the noticeable silence of city and local officials over the years was palpable for many residents.
“I can only conclude that the absence of a trolley in Liberty City was only due to a desire not to invest that kind of money in our area,” Lattimore said. “They’re people who get paid and elected to be able to keep the playing field somewhat level. We’re asking for a level playing field. ... It should not have gotten to this point.”
City Commissioner Willy Gort blames the complex governmental process for getting a new route set up as the primary reason for the hold-up.
“It takes a long time especially when you deal with the government,” Gort said. “You have to coordinate the different jurisdictions, that takes time itself. I’m in favor of the expansion. I think sometimes the north side of Flagler gets ignored.”
Liberty City began in the Liberty Square housing project that was built in the 1930s as a way to address overcrowding in the historically black neighborhood of Overtown. African-Americans make up 78 percent of Liberty City’s population, with Hispanic and Latino residents making up about 20 percent, according to the Liberty City Economic Analysis and Economic Report from Miami-Dade County, the University of Miami and Florida International University.
The 2002 voter-approved “half-penny” transportation surtax partly finances the city’s trolley system. The city also receives grant funds from the Florida Department of Transportation to help with the purchase of trolley buses, said Alan Dodd, director of the Miami department of resilience and public works.
The city reported during fiscal year 2017-2018 that more than 5 million people rode Miami trolleys, an increase from 2.3 million in 2013.
The Citizens’ Independent Transportation Trust is the 15-member body that oversees the use of surtax funds. Trust member Oscar Braynon, father of state Sen. Oscar Braynon II, said Liberty City residents have been in close communication with the trust on pushing the city to grant them a trolley route.
“In this case it appears the city was excluding a large geographic area of the city from benefiting from the trolley service,” Braynon said. “I just hope they realize that providing equal access to transportation is not an obligation, but it is a federal law. The Transportation Trust is not in the business of providing funds for people to violate federal laws.”
Braynon said there have been multiple meetings about the proposed route over the past few months involving the trust, city officials and residents.
The city is currently conducting a trolley efficiency study that will extend into the fall and provide a closer look at how the city’s trolley system can be modified. Dodd, who was appointed director of public resilience and public works in June 2018, said the city has heeded residents’ concerns.
“I would say that we are trying to systematically improve the service for all of the residents in the city, but that happens one route at a time,” Dodd said. “We’re trying meet all of the needs and it’s a matter of figuring out what we can do with the limited resources we do have.”
The new route will extend from Northwest 33rd Street to Northwest 62nd Street — Northwest 67th on weekdays — and from Northwest 64th Street to Northwest Second Avenue. It’s expected the route would run every 25 minutes. It would start out with two buses that would be shifted from the existing Flagami and Brickell trolley routes. Otherwise, it would cost the city almost $1 million to buy two new vehicles, according to a city inter-office memo. Annual operating cost is expected to be $600,000.
City Commissioner Manolo Reyes — he represents District 4, which has the Flagami trolley route, and has been on the commission less than two years — said he was not aware how long Liberty City residents had been pushing for a trolley.
“When I was informed about the set of the trolley route in Liberty City, I was glad one of the trolleys was assigned from Flagami,” Reyes said. “I’m in favor of anything that benefits the residents of Miami regardless of where they are located.”
For residents, a Liberty City trolley means better access to major community hubs such as the Charles Hadley Park Community Center and the Model City Public Library. Residents demands were met Thursday after Commissioner Keon Hardemon announced the route would also extend to the Joseph Caleb Community Center, located outside city limits on Northwest 22nd Avenue.
Dodd said trolley routes are allowed to extend outside city boundaries, but that the city would need three trolleys instead of two to cover the larger route. James McQueen, chief of staff for Hardemon, who represents Liberty City, said the commissioner has pledged to work to find funding for a third trolley car.
“Because this route was not part of our 2019 budget, we tried to look at how can we reallocate resources with what we have right now in order to get the route established,” Dodd said. “We’ll continue to improve the route from an efficiency point of view and meeting the needs of the residents over the course of the next year. Hopefully as we’re doing that we’ll be able to accommodate the request to go to 22nd Avenue.”
Dodd said it would take a matter of a few weeks to get the new route up and running.
Lattimore, along with other Liberty City residents, left Thursday’s meeting feeling “ecstatic,” he said.
“I’m feeling a lot more optimistic,” Lattimore said. “The Caleb extension was the icing on the cake. We’re in an area that has not had [trolleys], but this has given us an opportunity to see it forth. We’re not going to allow anything to jeopardize the success.”