Miami Beach

South Beach light rail stopped to wait for county Bay Link plan

This rendering shows the proposed wireless streetcar designed by French rail company Alstom, part of a team whose proposal to build Miami Beach’s streetcar will be put on hold.
This rendering shows the proposed wireless streetcar designed by French rail company Alstom, part of a team whose proposal to build Miami Beach’s streetcar will be put on hold. Greater Miami Tramlink Partners

Miami Beach commissioners voted unanimously Wednesday to temporarily stop the fast-tracked light rail project that would lay down tracks on South Beach’s streets.

The light rail or “modern streetcar” line, a centerpiece issue in Mayor Philip Levine’s second term, is now on hold after commissioners agreed to wait for Miami-Dade County commissioners to make a binding commitment to building a connection across Biscayne Bay, including a funding plan. A final contract for the project would also have to be approved by voters.

Wednesday’s vote effectively delays any contract negotiations for the $244 million South Beach train project by at least several months, and possibly longer. It’s unclear how the Beach’s chosen train provider, Greater Miami Tramlink Partners, might factor into Bay Link now.

Levine proposed the measure last week following several months of growing discontent among Beach residents and Commissioner Michael Grieco’s recently announced opposition. Most residents who have spoken at public hearings either completely opposed rail in South Beach or supported a train only if it is built with a connection to downtown Miami.

We’ve heard the public loud and clear.

Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine

“We’ve heard the public loud and clear on that,” Levine said on Wednesday.

The commission also accepted a suggestion from Frank Del Vecchio, an activist and South Beach resident, to consider an amendment to the city charter that would require a public referendum on any project that would put rail tracks on city streets. Under the current proposal, tracks would be placed on existing car lanes on Fifth Street and Washington Avenue.

Train opponents have urged the city to let residents weigh in on any rail project at the ballot box. Among those is Robert Lansburgh, a South Beach resident who was poised to petition for a charter change if the commission didn’t do it first.

“At the end of the day, we’re going to the public to let them vote on this,” he told the Miami Herald. “What a ride.”

The commission agreed that a final contract for a light rail project will have to be approved by voters.

Levine’s tone has shifted considerably since his re-election in November 2015, when he made transportation and traffic problems a key priority and started pushing for the city to construct its piece of Bay Link ahead of Miami-Dade’s portion across the bay. On Wednesday, he disclosed the results of a poll that he paid for himself and touted them as evidence that residents want Bay Link.

The poll, done by GOP polling firm McLaughlin and Associates, asked 300 voters whether they support or oppose the city working with local, state and federal agencies to create a light rail connection between the Beach and the mainland “to relieve causeway congestion and reduce the number of vehicles that are currently on Miami Beach streets.”

The result: 71 percent supported such a project, but the poll doesn’t appear to have been structured to accurately gauge public sentiment on the train because it didn’t offer alternatives in the form of other questions.

“The issue is the one-sided nature of the question,” said David Custin, Levine’s own political consultant. “There’s no balance.”

Custin also represented Sacyr, a multinational infrastructure firm that led the third-ranked team that bid for the South Beach streetcar. The train provider on the Greater Miami Tramlink Partners team is French rail company Alstom.

“The poll fails to include all aspects of the issue,” he said. “All this does is protect Alstom’s interests.”

Wednesday’s decision to pump the brakes comes on the verge of an election year. In 2017, three commissioners are running to keep their seats. Levine told the Miami Herald right now he intends to run for a third term, although he’s considered a possible gubernatorial candidate and said he will likely make a final decision in January. The train could still be a lightning rod during election season.

His poll included other questions that he said were unrelated to transportation or the train, but he declined to disclose those questions or the cost of the poll.

In recent weeks, a separate phone survey polled residents on their opinions of citywide issues, the streetcar, and a number of former and current elected officials. The last question asked if the resident would vote for Commissioner Ricky Arriola or Grieco for mayor.

It is unknown who paid for the second poll.

“The train, in my opinion, was going to be the election issue,” said Del Vecchio, whose home received the call Dec. 1. His wife, Marian, shared the questions from the unknown poll with the Herald.

Greater Miami Tramlink Partners declined to comment for this story.

For now, it’s wait and see. As far as Bay Link is concerned, the county could have something completely different in mind. Transportation leaders might ditch light rail and extend the Metromover across the bay.

After the Beach commission’s vote, Grieco said he thinks any system that would take lanes away from cars will die in the hands of voters.

“I do not think it will be embraced by the community,” he said.

Joey Flechas: 305-376-3602, @joeflech