Miami-Dade business leaders push for improvements in mass transit system

Commuters scramble out of the Tri-Rail trains on Northwest 79th Street in Miami on Tuesday, April 21, 2015.
Commuters scramble out of the Tri-Rail trains on Northwest 79th Street in Miami on Tuesday, April 21, 2015. EL NUEVO HERALD

Business leaders are taking a more direct role in promoting improvements and enhancements in South Florida’s public transportation system.

The Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, for example, is working to identify one or two achievable major transit improvements to advocate and push county officials to act on. The chamber’s transportation and infrastructure committee is also organizing four events aimed at promoting transit in creative ways to persuade people to drive less.

Earlier this month, the Beacon Council — Miami-Dade’s development agency — hosted a summit in which business leaders were urged to get more involved in improving the area’s transportation. It was there where the head of Tri-Rail, Jack Stephens, announced that the commuter rail system will begin service to downtown Miami in 2017. This is significant because downtown Tr-Rail service would mark the first major new transit enhancement in Miami-Dade since the opening of the Metrorail line to Miami International Airport (MIA) in 2012. Also, the service would bring to Miami thousands of commuters who live in Broward and Palm Beach counties, but have jobs downtown.

Business interest in transit reflects general public discontent with chronic congestion and a mass transit system viewed as inadequate. Its heavy rail service is limited and its buses are neither frequent nor comfortable.

Mitchell Bierman, an attorney who heads the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce’s transportation committee, said in a recent interview that the chamber is interested in pushing specific projects as transport priorities in Miami-Dade.

“There appears to be a broad consensus among the business community, the government and the general population that we are at a critical juncture and that making significant investments in our transit infrastructure now will benefit all sectors of this community in terms of the economy, the environment and our quality of life,” Bierman said.

Bierman identified the upgrade of the South Miami-Dade Busway to the level of a world class Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) service as a project that he thinks would be achievable quickly. He plans to urge the chamber to consider this project as one that the business community should get behind and push. The second project Bierman thinks should be a top priority is creation of a light rail service between downtown Miami and Miami Beach.

The Busway, a dedicated road for buses, runs from the Dadeland South Metrorail station to Florida City. To attain BRT status, the Busway needs to — among other things — enhance stops so that they resemble train platforms. Passengers then would be able to board buses without having to climb steps or pay fares on board. Fares would be paid at the stop so that boarding would be seamless and quick.

Meanwhile, the light rail link between Miami and Miami Beach is seen by business leaders as fundamental to improve transportation between two heavily congested urban areas.

“For public transit to attract the 'choice rider' it must be faster than driving your own car,” said Bierman. “This means it must operate either on a track or in a dedicated lane. It also helps if BRT vehicles look and feel more like modernistic rail vehicles.”

Bierman said the chamber is also organizing four events aimed at highlighting the need for improved transit in Miami-Dade.

The first will be a panel discussion in October featuring a financial expert to address the issue of how Miami-Dade can pay for transit improvements.

Then on Nov. 14, the chamber will stage Car-free in Miami, an event featuring ways to use public transportation in Miami without the use of a car. The event will feature a bike-share program, use of Metrorail and Metromover, the Miami trolley system as well as Lyft and Uber services.

A date has not yet been set for the next event: a panel on how advances in information technology could make transit more viable. One idea involves a smartphone application that would show on a map the location of a bus and how far it is from the stop where you’re waiting for it.

The final event involves a panel, whose date has not been set either, to focus on the personal economics of using transit.

Eventually, said Bierman, the chamber will issue a document outlining its transportation priorities for Miami-Dade.

Alfonso Chardy: 305-376-3435, @Alfonso Chardy