Traffic

What’s up with mass transit in Florida? You asked, we answered

When it comes to getting around in Miami, tolls, traffic and road rage may come to mind.

An effective mass transit system, on the other hand, is more elusive.

Following a transportation-related survey of the Florida Influencers, a group of 50 prominent political and policy figures from across the state, the Miami Herald asked readers what they want to know about how we get from one place to another in Florida.

Olga Golik, who lives in the west part of Miami, asked why we don’t have more local mass transit.

“My frustration is the frustration I am facing right now,” said Golik, an attorney who called a reporter on her commute home from her Hialeah office. “I’m sitting here, going less than 20 miles per hour on a not-so-busy day. The Palmetto at this time never really runs much quicker.”

In 2002, Miami-Dade County voters approved a half percent local tax with the purpose of improving, among other things, rapid transit corridors within the county through a local initiative called the People’s Transportation Plan (PTP).

Golik spent a year in Washington, D.C., where riding the Metro made her wish Miami had a more sophisticated rail system, particularly one that runs east to west to serve commuters like her and Florida International University students and faculty, she said. Golik has also seen the 2002 referendum money be used on other things like infrastructure work in her neighborhood, which doesn’t even have a bus stop.

“I’m frustrated that we don’t have enough mass transit in South Florida,” she said. ” I’m frustrated that we passed the tax to expand our mass transit and I’ve seen that tax be used on other things.”

In 2016, the county Transportation Planning Organization’s governing board unanimously approved a policy to set the advancement of rapid transit corridors and projects as the “highest priority.” Later that year, the board adopted and endorsed the Strategic Miami Area Rapid Transit (SMART) Plan, which aims to contract studies, consulting and planning to make recommendations.

So what is the county doing when it comes to mass transit in Miami-Dade? Here are few projects that are in the works:

Bay Link

Plans to connect Miami and Miami Beach via transit system go back to the late 1980s, but this year, a new “baylink” proposal is up for approval.

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez will be looking for approval at Wednesday’s county commission meeting to launch a bidding process for companies who want in on building the transit route between the county’s largest business district and its tourism hotspot.

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Over the years, potential solutions included high-wire pods, a light-rail system and dedicated transit lanes to let bus passengers quickly pass through traffic.

The latest plan for the tax-funded contract, pitched by casino developer Genting and partners, involves a system to link Miami to Miami Beach via Disney-style monorail, which can move 25 miles per hour faster than Metromover vehicles and hold about 150 more passengers per train, according to an analysis by Parsons, a California-based consulting firm operating under a $20 million county contract for the SMART Plan.

An analysis prepared last spring by Parsons estimated a monorail system between Miami and Miami Beach would cost as much as $1 billion to build and $18 million a year to operate.

Gimenez, who claims the plan is “financially viable,” is looking for county commissioners to approve it and invite competing bids. The recommendation comes as the county is paying a consultant to analyze the best transit plan for the corridor, which is expected to wrap up by the end of the year.

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Virgin Trains USA Orlando expansion

When Virgin Trains USA, formerly called Brightline and before that All Aboard Florida, launched express service from downtown Miami to West Palm Beach last year, it paved a new way for how South Floridians could travel the region.

A new extension project, which broke ground late last month, will use the Florida East Coast Railway line up the coast to Cocoa, where trains will then turn west on 170 miles of new track. It will eventually end up at a terminal at the Orlando International Airport.

The Virgin train will reach 125 miles per hour during a portion of the West Palm-to-Orlando route, making it the fastest train ever built in the southern U.S., according to a presentation to the Central Florida Expressway Authority. A trip from the Miami Central Station to Orlando International will take about three hours.

The construction between West Palm Beach and Orlando is set to be complete in 2022, according to the company. Right now, the trains operate between Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach in hopes of reducing commuter traffic on South Florida’s infamously congested I-95 corridor.

While ridership in 2018 was about half of what the company had predicted according to a disclosure form filed with the state, the company also has preliminary plans to expand into Tampa and other Orlando venues in the area around Disney.

Last year Virgin Trains announced a similar project to connect Las Vegas and Southern California.

Rapid transit buses

When it comes to expanding the Metrorail system, the 25-mile track that runs from Kendall through South Miami, Coral Gables and downtown Miami with connections on TriRail to Broward and Palm Beach counties, the plans have not quite left the ground.

After the county spent $50 million on studies and eventually abandoned the idea for a lack of federal funds, consultants recently recommended spending more than $1 billion on a Metrorail route up Northwest 27th Avenue. The transportation board put off a final decision until consultants came back with financial options and details. There is no timetable for the train extension.

The focus, instead, has shifted to a modernized, less expensive alternative: the county’s first “rapid-transit” bus system. The $243 million, 20-mile system would use dedicated lanes with stations and vehicles designed to look and feel like rail service.

Last years’ approval of the bus project came as a disappointment for supporters of expanding Metrorail, who say the vote betrayed voters who were promised more rail in exchange for approving a tax that now generates close to $300 million a year.

The county estimated then that it could have the system operating within three or four years.

Miami Herald staff writer Doug Hanks contributed to this report

Samantha J. Gross is a politics and policy reporter for the Miami Herald. Before she moved to the Sunshine State, she covered breaking news at the Boston Globe and the Dallas Morning News.
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