An ordinance proposed by the mayor of Miami Beach to strengthen the city’s control over transit projects would devastate county efforts to create a link between the Beach and downtown Miami, Miami-Dade Commissioner Eileen Higgins warned Miami Beach officials Wednesday.
Mayor Dan Gelber’s proposal, which was up for initial discussion by the Miami Beach commission, “simply destroys your options for public transportation all across the board,” Higgins said during a public comment period.
“It’s important that we not put up legislative roadblocks that essentially say Miami Beach doesn’t want to look at transit,” said Higgins, a staunch public transit advocate who was elected last year to represent District 5, which includes Miami and Miami Beach. “This is written so broadly [that] you will never be able to implement any transit projects.”
Gelber, a longtime friend of Higgins, tried to assuage her concerns. He agreed to send his proposal to a finance committee for revisions and insisted his goal isn’t to impede an effort to connect Miami Beach and Miami over the MacArthur Causeway, commonly known as the “Baylink” project, although the county now calls it the Beach corridor of its transportation SMART Plan. Still, Gelber said, he wants to make sure his city can say no to a project it doesn’t like.
“We’ve got to make sure we can control our future,” Gelber said. “I don’t want to be the chairman of the I-told-you-so club.”
Gelber’s proposed ordinance would require multiple city-level studies and at least five yes votes by the seven-member Miami Beach commission to authorize any transit project that uses city property or funds.
Such a proposal is “duplicative,” Higgins said, given that federal, state and county laws already mandate similar studies. The county expects to see the results in December of a tax-funded study by the Parsons engineering firm of the Baylink commuting route. County commissioners are then expected to vote in the spring on the proposals they receive to build it.
Higgins also noted that Miami Beach is represented on the county’s Transportation Planning Organization by herself, Gelber and District 4 Commissioner Sally Heyman. Letting the City Commission vote separately on transit projects, Higgins told the Miami Herald, is “probably not viable.”
She added that she has met with every neighborhood association in Miami Beach to talk to residents about the bidding process for the Baylink project.
“I have had my sneakers on and I’m roaming the island to make sure people know what’s happening,” Higgins told the commission.
The additional studies that Gelber proposed could tack on another three years to the approval process for any transit project, Higgins said.
Gelber has been critical of county officials’ handling of the Baylink bidding process. In July, he penned a letter asking the County Commission to delay a vote on a proposal by Malaysian casino giant Genting to open bidding for a monorail linking Miami Beach to downtown.
Genting, which owns property on the Miami waterfront, submitted an unsolicited proposal in April to build and operate the monorail using a mix of public and private money totaling roughly $400 million.
Both Higgins and Gelber say they are in favor of public transit but opposed to new casinos. They are worried that Genting might build the casino it has long wanted by the monorail station (although a new casino would require voter approval of a statewide referendum).
“We have to make sure that the city has the ability to make sure that whatever system is created is the best going forward for the city,” Gelber told the Herald. “We’re just looking for something that gives us the ability to come as close as being able to veto a proposal as possible.”
But Higgins said the ongoing process requesting proposals and the Parsons study, which is evaluating four possible methods to link Miami Beach and Miami — a monorail, a Metromover extension, light rail and bus — will give officials a fair shot to pick the option that works best for residents.
“I think it’s fantastic,” Higgins said, adding that such a project has been discussed for decades. “Our residents don’t want to wait anymore and neither do I.”
Gelber moved to send the proposed ordinance to the finance committee rather than throwing it out entirely, but he said the committee can take a “scalpel,” a “switchblade” or a “chainsaw” to the original language as it sees fit.
He insisted that his goals and Higgins’ goals are aligned.
“You and I are close friends and allies,” Gelber told Higgins. “I’m endorsing your reelection from the dais,” he added, drawing laughter from the chamber gallery.
The commission voted to send the ordinance to committee. John Aleman was the lone commissioner to vote against the move.
“I’m sure in committee this will get dialed down to send the right message,” Higgins said.