The fast-moving plan to build two miles of light rail on South Beach’s streets could slow to a crawl this week after it encountered mounting public opposition and the urgency of a once-eager City Commission begins to erode.
The Miami Beach City Commission on Wednesday will consider holding off on contract negotiations until the Board of County Commissioners formally commits to building its portion of a rail connection across the Biscayne Bay, effectively delaying work for at least a few months and maybe a year. The same resolution, put forth by Mayor Philip Levine, also proposes to require voter approval of any final contract for a light rail system.
In the past month, dozens of Miami Beach residents have spoken out against a $244-million wireless streetcar project that would connect the southwest edge of the island to the Miami Beach Convention Center, running on tracks laid down on existing vehicle lanes on Fifth Street and Washington Avenue. A few supporters see value in a local train only if it actually connects to the mainland.
The plan for the South Beach train has so far moved at breakneck speed at the urging of the commission, but two elected officials have publicly called for the process to slow down — one asking for a temporary stop and the other leaning toward a total derailment.
The current push to build a “modern streetcar,” billed as one third of a future light rail connection to Downtown Miami and commonly known as “Bay Link,” began last year when a consortium of firms including French rail company Alstom submitted an unsolicited proposal to jump-start a long-discussed but never-realized rail connection across Biscayne Bay.
That vote was originally expected to be on Wednesday. However, Levine unexpectedly proposed suspending the process and waiting for Miami-Dade to move its portion of the bay connection forward before the Beach keeps going.
Levine’s also suggesting that the city require any light rail contract to pass a citywide referendum — a public vote residents have clamored for in recent months. Opposition appears to be widespread and support is tepid, particularly because the city has moved forward ahead of the county.
It’s unclear if a full Bay Link would win favor with a majority of voters, though in 2004, a nonbinding referendum supporting Bay Link passed.
“Let the people decide if they want a connection between Miami and Miami Beach via a public citywide vote in the future when and if the county decides to move forward with Bay Link,” Levine said.
The proposal represents a sharp turn for the mayor, who has championed the fast-tracked project as a boon that would ignite County Hall’s interest in building the rest of the Bay Link. The county’s less urgent approach could indicate that the Beach’s connection is not a top priority for the county.
County commissioners approved a six-corridor “SMART” plan earlier this year that represents a wish list of mass transit projects across the county. Recently re-elected Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez touted the plan on the campaign trail and has said he wants to move on one or two of the lines, which could be light rail or buses with dedicated lanes, within the next few years. He even said he might announce one transit project by year’s end.
Meanwhile, another previously supportive elected official in the Beach has switched positions and questioned whether giving existing vehicle lanes to a rail system should happen at all. Several days before Levine filed his resolution last week, Commissioner Michael Grieco publicly announced his position on social media, saying he’s keeping an open mind as an impact study continues but believes light rail might not work on South Beach’s car-clogged thoroughfares.
He told the Miami Herald that while he was initially sold on the concept of light rail running through South Beach, his conversations with South Beach residents led him to reconsider.
“The SMART plan has to start on the mainland,” Grieco said. “If not, we’ll be sitting here with an empty train to nowhere.”
“Train to nowhere” is a phrase often used by Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez, who has stridently opposed the train for several months. Although she supports Levine’s new approach, she is still skeptical because of the unknowns, such as how much the whole corridor will cost and where the money will come from.
“The most important part of this is how we’re going to fund this,” she said.
At an estimated $244 million construction bill for the two-mile piece in Miami Beach, the Florida Department of Transportation is prepared to cover 12.5 percent. County officials said they would contribute with approval from the Metropolitan Planning Organization, but commitments have not been made on the amount.
According to City Hall’s preliminary funding plan, the Beach could pay for half the construction cost.
The money has already been an issue. Last month the city scaled back the initial plan to build a loop around South Beach, halving the project because of high costs, in addition to pushback from businesses on Alton Road who are tired of construction.
Pausing the current process would likely leave Greater Miami Tramlink Partners on the sidelines for at least several months and perhaps a year while the county prices the six corridors of the SMART plan and decides how to respond to the Beach’s request for a commitment. A funding plan is expected to be complete by summer 2017.
The Greater Miami Tramlink Partners team declined to comment for this article.