Miami-Dade transportation authorities explore costs for rapid transit

TransMilenio buses circulating in the streets of Bogota, Colombia. Bogota has become one of the easiest cities in Latin America to get around, partly due to the installation of TransMilenio rapid transit buses.
TransMilenio buses circulating in the streets of Bogota, Colombia. Bogota has become one of the easiest cities in Latin America to get around, partly due to the installation of TransMilenio rapid transit buses. AP

Imagine a modern bus gliding into a station outfitted with ticket machines, newspaper racks and coffee and pastry stands, and passengers who board the bus from a platform perfectly aligned with the vehicle doors, so people don’t have to climb any steps.

That scene may be coming to a road near you in the not too distant future — maybe seven or eight years.

Miami-Dade transportation authorities are exploring the feasibility of building three Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) lines that would feature articulated buses operating on exclusive lanes and picking up passengers at enhanced stops resembling train station platforms. Riders would board the bus as if entering a Metrorail car.

The service would be similar to systems already in operation in Cleveland, Ohio, and a handful of other U.S. cities, as well as in Brazil, Colombia and Mexico.

“We’ve been thinking about this concept for many years,” said Jesús Guerra, interim executive director of the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), the county’s transportation planning agency.

Last February, the MPO governing board approved implementation of a Project, Development and Environmental (PD&E) study for establishing three BRT routes: along 27th Avenue from the Miami Intermodal Center (MIC) transit hub just east of Miami International Airport (MIA) to the Broward County line; along Flagler Street from Northwest 107th Avenue close to Florida International University (FIU) to downtown, and along Kendall Drive from 167thAvenue to Dadeland.

The BRT corridors are an effort by the MPO governing board to showcase an affordable transit project instead of planning for expensive Metrorail lines that may never be built.

For example, the 2.4-mile new Orange Line to MIA cost $506 million. A BRT corridor is expected to cost about $150 million.

In addition to the MPO, the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), and Miami-Dade Transit (MDT) also are working together on this effort.

The service, if implemented, will mark a radical departure from regular bus systems in American cities where the vehicles generally operate within traffic and pick up passengers waiting either on street corners, or at benches and stops covered by flimsy roofs. The South Miami-Dade Busway, where buses have a dedicated road, is an exception — but even that service does not rise to the level of a BRT.

A BRT resembles a rail line with articulated buses running on dedicated lanes either in the middle of the roadway or curbside. The buses pick up passengers at large facilities that resemble train platforms.

Such systems have been operating for several years in Latin America. Curitiba, in Brazil, was a pioneer city. Colombia and Mexico followed suit with similar services — TransMilenio in Bogotá and Metrobús in Mexico City. Some BRTs have been implemented in a few U.S. cities, including one in Cleveland, which the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) considers a model for Miami and other metropolitan areas.

Guerra, the MPO interim executive director, said the PD&Es began after MPO members, who include the 13 county commissioners, as well as representatives of several municipalities, the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority (MDX) and the school board, approved the study during a meeting in February. Completion of the PD&Es could take about two years, Guerra said.

If the BRT project is to be executed, the search for funding will start, with probably a combination of local, state and federal funds. Guerra said engineers also will design the alignments and acquire right of way. If all falls into place, said Guerra, BRT buses would be running on Northwest 27th Avenue, Flagler Street and Kendall Drive by 2021 or 2022.

The BRT system is expected to be operated by MDT, a county department that also operates regular Metrobus, Metrorail and Metromover.

Alice Bravo, the newly-appointed MDT director, said the possible BRT lines are part of an overall effort to improve transit services in Miami-Dade at a time when South Florida residents are demanding quick solutions for chronic transport problems

“What is important to know is that as a community, over the years, we have looked at a lot of different plans, a lot of different options,” Bravo said. “The fact that everybody is so interested in transportation right now is a perfect opportunity for everybody to come together and cement our plans.”

BRT is just one of several priority projects that local transportation officials hope to build over the next few years to show residents that they are serious about improving the county’s transit system — which has long been perceived as inadequate.

Other plans include adding express bus service on State Road 836. MDX has begun the planning phase of a “design and build” project to provide a new park-and-ride/transit facility near the intersection of Northwest 12th Street and 122nd Avenue. The scheduled date for completion of the park-and-ride/transit facility is late 2017.

According to a recent MDX statement, MDT will provide express bus service on nearby 836 on inner/median shoulders during peak congestion times.