Dozens of residents expressed their displeasure with Miami Beach’s fast-tracked streetcar project at a public forum Tuesday afternoon.
Members of the public bristled at the thought of a wireless streetcar running up Washington Avenue, occupying a lane of vehicle traffic in each direction, and even the few who support the project said it would have to be built in conjunction with a link across Biscayne Bay for it to actually reduce the number of cars on the Beach’s congested streets.
The city hosted the first two of several meetings to gauge public opinion on the plan to build an estimated $244 million streetcar that would run about two miles from the southwest edge of the island along Fifth Street and up Washington Avenue to Miami Beach High School.
Billed as a first step toward reducing traffic on the car-clogged barrier island, the proposed two-mile line would be one piece of a future rail connection between Downtown Miami across Biscayne Bay. Commissioners will in December consider approving an “interim agreement,” or a deal to enter formal contract negotiations with the top-ranked bidder, Greater Miami Tramlink Partners, to build the train.
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French rail company Alstom would provide the the train, which would be powered by a proprietary technology that uses an electrified third rail to provide electricity to the train from underneath as it passes over.
During Tuesday afternoon’s first session, property owners and residents focused on the elimination of vehicle lanes and street parking as they spoke out against the idea. A few worried about bicycle access, since no bike lanes are built into the plans for Washington Avenue. Those who believe a streetcar could help break the gridlock said it would only make a difference if it is actually connecting Miami to Miami Beach.
“A streetcar system can help with that very much, and can reduce energy consumption, but it should be part of a bigger plan,” said Ann Kork, a South Beach resident. “The in-and-out of the Beach is just horrific. The best solution would be if the cars didn’t come to the Beach at all.”
One resident questioned the wisdom of moving people across the bay in South Beach when many workers need to get to the 41st Street corridor in Middle Beach.
“The largest employers we have on Miami Beach are Mount Sinai Medical Center and the Fontainebleau,” said Beach native Cynthia Golub.
Jimmy Resnick, son of well-known Miami Beach real estate figure Abe Resnick and owner of seven properties on Washington Avenue, lamented the loss of two traffic lanes and on-street parking, even if the city is planning on building four parking garages in the area during the next four years. His concerns underscored the sentiment that a car-centric culture will be difficult to change.
City officials and consultants argued that in planning for the future, they have to consider increased interest in public transit from millennials.
Resnick also said the city needs to postpone December’s commission vote on an interim agreement in order to get more public input before moving anything forward.
“What’s the rush?” he said.
The rush, officials contend, is to spark County Hall’s interest in building its portion of the Beach Corridor Transit Project, commonly known as the Bay Link. A rail connection between Downtown Miami and South Beach has for more than four decades been a talking point for city and county politicians. The link is one of six lines the county has pledged to pursue going forward, and while all projects have have labeled as top priority, it would be up to the Board of County Commissioners to decide what gets built when. The politics of whose district goes first would likely come into play if the county doesn’t advance all six at once.
City Manager Jimmy Morales emphasized that while the process has moved fast to this point, the city is not bound to the project right now, and the City Commission would ultimately have to make several policy decisions before moving forward. He added that the train would play one part in a multifaceted approach to reduce traffic, which includes bike lanes and trolleys — and, possibly, a Bay Link.
“No one is saying this train will fix traffic,” Morales said. “It’s a tool in the belt.”