Miami Beach

Miami Beach wants to know what you think about a South Beach streetcar

This rendering shows the proposed wireless streetcar designed by French rail company Alstom, a part of the team who wants to build Miami Beach’s streetcar.
This rendering shows the proposed wireless streetcar designed by French rail company Alstom, a part of the team who wants to build Miami Beach’s streetcar. Greater Miami Tramlink Partners

On the congested streets of South Beach, two traffic lanes could be replaced with sleek trams that don’t look like your grandfather’s streetcar.

Wireless streetcars would run in both directions along Fifth Street and Washington Avenue, with seven stops between the southwest edge of the island and Miami Beach Senior High School. Politicians see the project, which would transform two major thoroughfares on the island, as a way to break the gridlock. They hope that in the long run, it eventually links to a train across Biscayne Bay to Miami.

So, Miami Beach, what do you think? Would you ride it?

Officials in Miami-Dade have discussed a rail connection between Miami and Miami Beach for decades.

The city will present its preliminary plans and ask the public for feedback at two public meetings at the New World Symphony on Tuesday. The sessions are being billed as the first of many meetings to gauge public sentiment on the proposed wireless light rail system.

“This is not a done deal,” City Manager Jimmy Morales said in a statement. “We are in the fact-finding phase … We value our community input.”

Indeed, elected leaders have not approved a contract for the estimated $244 million project. But they have already lost leverage in the negotiation. The early planning stages have moved quickly at the will of commissioners who want to see a streetcar realized soon and jump-start interest in a rail connection to Miami. In the process, the commission chose to circumvent the typical bidding procedure for developing a public-private partnership, selecting a team solely based on its train technology.

$244 million the estimated cost of the proposed wireless streetcar in South Beach

Commissioners skipped the early costs of designing specific guidelines for bidders and are pushing a fast solicitation at the same time the administration is in the fact-finding process Morales mentions in his statement. This public input will factor into an environmental analysis that will include ridership projections and other key data that will determine whether a South Beach streetcar, as it is planned, is worth it.

Results from this crucial analysis are expected to be available in the spring.

Meanwhile, the price already appears to be swelling. The city had envisioned a loop around the center of South Beach, stretching from Beach High west on Dade Boulevard and south on Alton Road. Last month, that loop was cut in half because of rising costs and logistical issues.

 

Last week, commissioners were scheduled to consider an “interim agreement” with Greater Miami Tramlink Partners, the first-ranked team. An interim agreement is basically the formalizing of a handshake that outlines what will be negotiated during real contract talks. The vote was pushed back to December after Morales said he wanted more time to reach out the public.

After the city reviews the project’s history, officials want to hear the public’s comments on the whole concept — the route, the planning process, the funding, the selected train team and everything else. The public will be allowed to speak or fill out comment cards.

Technology over price

Under a typical public-private partnership approach, the city would have solicited companies and consortiums to build the trolley system, then given them guidelines to compete on the price and construction schedule. And that’s how it started: In March, Morales and the city’s consultant recommended the city move forward along this standard route.

But a majority of commissioners rejected that approach. Instead, the consultant got scolded by Mayor Philip Levine, who grumbled that Beach was moving too slow.

In the name of moving fast and saving on upfront costs tied to more intricate consultant designing and planning, the City Commission voted to solicit and rank bidders only on their technologies, inviting teams to show off their trains and opting to deal with the final price tag and timetable later.

Three teams competed this summer with differing technologies. The second-ranked team, Connect Miami Beach, would build trains that run on super-capacitor batteries that would be located on top of the car and would recharge at stops in about 20 seconds as passengers board. The third team, Miami Beach Mobility Partners, would run on a different battery-powered system.

But the winner was the team that sparked the whole process with an unsolicited bid last year. Greater Miami Tramlink Partners, with French rail company Alstom, has been trying to woo local officials for a few years in hopes of securing contracts to do a full Bay Link. Alstom representatives met with Levine, Morales and Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez during tours of rail facilities in France prior to the unsolicited bid.

Morales said last week that a traditional solicitation would have given the city a chance to compare the teams’ prices, but the city will use similar rail projects elsewhere in the U.S. to haggle for a better deal.

“Competition always puts you in a better position. I can’t predict whether we’ll get as good a price or not. We’ll see when we get to the end,” he said. “But yes, with competition, at least we would have had things to compare.”

For elected officials, the approach is driven by the urge to move fast and the desire for their favorite technology — in this case, Alstom’s ground-powered train, which uses proprietary technology where an electrified third rail powers the streetcars from underneath as the car passes over. This technology has not been implemented in the U.S. before.

Competition always puts you in a better position.

City Manager Jimmy Morales

Morales also noted that taking more time could make the project more expensive as construction costs rise over time. Even taking time to pursue federal funding can be costly, he said.

The other justification for the Beach’s process is the chance that an expedited project will serve as a catalyst for the larger Bay Link between the island and the mainland, which is now called the less-catchy Beach Corridor Transit Project.

So far, the Florida Department of Transportation is prepared to pay for 12.5 percent of the project, pending approval from the Metropolitan Planning Organization. The group is composed of bureaucrats and elected officials from across Miami-Dade who make regional transit planning decisions for the purpose of eligibility for federal funding.

Alice Bravo, director of the county’s department of transportation and public works, said the county would consider pitching in with a blessing from the Metropolitan Planning Organization.

“Given our transportation challenges in the community, I think whatever can move a project forward more quickly is in our best interest,” she said.

Her boss, Gimenez, reiterated this week that he places a high priority on local transit projects. On Wednesday, the day after he won reelection, he told reporters that he might announce one project before the end of the year — one piece of the “SMART Plan,” a countywide vision with six mass transit corridors announced in April. Among those transit lines: the Beach Corridor.

Levine believes the Beach’s efforts might help get the Beach Corridor high on the county’s wish list, although even at the current pace, a streetcar might not be up and running for another four or five years. The city and county are exploring the use of buses with dedicated bus lanes as a temporary fix that could be implemented sooner.

Miami Beach United, an activist group, wants Miami Beach to slow its work on the streetcar until the county and Miami commit to building the rest of the system.

“We want to keep the ‘link’ in ‘Bay Link,’ ” said Mark Samuelian, a member of the group’s board of directors, adding that they advocate for bus rapid transit as a better short-term solution.

While some officials see benefits in the Beach’s push for a streetcar, some onlookers are skeptical and still see a problem in the city’s search for a good deal.

Eric Zichella, principal of P3 Management and a lobbyist who specializes in public-private infrastructure projects, said the city is in the worst possible negotiating position because it can talk to the second-ranked team, Connect Miami Beach, only if it officially ends negotiations with the first team.

In other words, the Beach missed the window for head-to-head competition.

In a typical public-private partnership, “you have several world-class consortia competing on price, schedule and design,” he said. “The city of Miami Beach had the consortia, but didn’t do any competition.”

Joey Flechas: 305-376-3602, @joeflech

If you go

What: Light rail/modern streetcar public information meeting in Miami Beach

When: 3:30to 5:30 p.m. or 6 to 8 p.m. (two sessions) Tuesday

Where: New World Symphony Suntrust Pavilion, 500 17th St.

Parking: Pennsylvania Avenue garage and 17th Street garage

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