Miami Beach

Community has mixed feelings on South Beach light rail proposal

Rendering of streetcar that is the first choice of Miami Beach commissioners, by French rail operator Alstom.
Rendering of streetcar that is the first choice of Miami Beach commissioners, by French rail operator Alstom. Greater Miami Tramlink Partners

As Miami Beach fast-tracks a $380 million light rail project that would create a four-mile loop around South Beach, the plan is being met with a mix of skepticism and support.

The City Commission has hurried the approval process during the past eight months, forgoing the chance for federal subsidies in the name of expediency and moving ahead of Miami-Dade County and the city of Miami to negotiate a deal for a route that would circle the heart of South Beach.

The proposed light rail, which is also being called a modern streetcar, would travel along Fifth Street, up Washington Avenue, across 17th Street or Dade Boulevard and down Alton Road. Trains would run in both directions, eliminating two traffic lanes.

Among the louder voices in the fray is Robert Lansburgh, who lives south of Fifth Street and is strongly opposed to the streetcar. He has started a Facebook group called “Stop the Train Miami Beach” with daily posts outlining issues he and others see, including fears that loss of travel lanes will create traffic nightmares. By Friday afternoon, about 370 people had liked the page.

The main problem, Lansburgh maintains, is that many residents are not aware of the details of a big-ticket project and their input should be heard. He said some information, such as the fact that the South Beach train would be only one-third of a future rail connection to the mainland known as “Bay Link,” is not well-known.

“This is a route to nowhere,” he told the Miami Herald, adding that he doesn’t believe the ridership will justify the elimination of car lanes along South Beach’s congested streets.

Miami-Dade County and the city of Miami also plan to pursue light rail projects that would eventually link to Miami Beach’s system, but they are proceeding more slowly than the Beach, in the hopes of getting federal funding. There are also concerns that the systems built at different times, and possibly by different companies, might not be compatible.

Commissioners asked the team chosen to develop the Beach system, Greater Miami Tramlink Partners, to promise the city that its loop could connect to another operator’s system and that it would pursue eligibility for federal funds.

It depends on how construction affects us. Last time, it hurt business a lot.

Andrea Quintans, server at Bella Napoli Pizzeria on Alton Road

Others in the community take issue with the speed of the project. Since December, the city has:

▪ Begun an environmental study that would help it qualify for state — but not federal — funding to help pay for the line. A more comprehensive study that could be used to vie for federal dollars was ruled out because it would take longer.

▪ Solicited bids for a rail builder and operator based on an unsolicited proposal from a team that includes French rail operator Alstom, who has not built a train on U.S. soil before.

▪ Evaluated those bids based on project designs and technologies, not price.

▪ Decided to negotiate an interim contract with Greater Miami Tramlink Partners, the initial bidding team that includes Alstom and its proprietary technology where the train is powered from underneath by an electrified third rail.

Resident David Doebler wants to see a train built but would rather see it constructed along with the rest of the Bay Link. He also worries that an Alstom-designed train with power coming from underneath would not function in a flooded environment, especially when sea-level rise is worsening the flooding.

“The fact that the selected project holder has power underground means that the system will likely be shut down when a storm comes and the streets are flooded,” he said.

City officials have said the train’s construction would include raising roads, and Alstom claimed in its bid that it can properly insulate the electric rail. The bid documents also state that if the ground power supply system failed, the Alstom train could travel about 700 feet at 10 miles per hour.

Others take issue with the fact that Alstom was involved in a massive corruption scandal abroad that led to the company paying a $772 million criminal penalty to the U.S. Department of Justice in late 2014. The company was accused of paying bribes in countries where it sought to do business, including Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the Bahamas.

Asked for an explanation, Alstom representatives would not comment but pointed to a December 2014 press release in which CEO Patrick Kron promises that the company will conduct business in a responsible and ethical way going forward.

“There were a number of problems in the past, and we deeply regret that,” Kron said.

It’s going to be great for tourists.

Dennis Sevinc, employee at a pizza place on Washington Avenue

On the other hand, some in the community say even a local streetcar would be a boon for tourists who want to move around South Beach easily, and some merchants see value in adding such an amenity that will spruce up Miami Beach’s image.

There’s also the hope that it gets cars off the road in the long-term.

“This is a necessary project,” said resident Ernesto Marcos. “We need to improve our transportation issues without increasing automobile traffic.”

For some folks, the streetcar is a necessary step to jump-starting Bay Link — as long as it is carefully designed to minimize impact on existing traffic and facilities.

Resident Lucille Acocella said she would use a local streetcar to get around “if it runs timely and efficiently.”

“The few times I used the [South Beach local bus], I waited so long I could have walked to my destination faster,” she said.

Saul Gross, a Washington Avenue property owner, said the streetcar can be a success if the city listens to the community’s concerns over details like the potential loss of street parking and drop-off points for valets.

“I understand the need, but the devil is in the details,” he said. “I really hope [the city] gathers as much community input as they can and incorporates it into the plan.”

This article includes comments from the Public Insight Network, an online community of people who have agreed to share their insights with the Miami Herald and WLRN. Become a source at http://www.miamiherald.com/site-services/public-insight-network/

Joey Flechas: 305-376-3602, @joeflech

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