Can South Miami-Dade embrace the bus? It should

Miami Herald Editorial Board

It’s time for the reluctant residents of South Miami-Dade County, whose commute north and east is a special form of hell, to embrace the bus. Not just any bus, but Bus Rapid Transit.

Many residents have a long-held dream, born with the original Metrorail project, that the rail line would be extended north and south in the years to come.

But after 34 years, and a decade of broken pledges made to voters in exchange for approving a 2002 half-cent sales surtax, it’s clear that expanding Metrorail is not financially feasible.

Rail just isn’t going to happen. County transportation administrators say that landing federal funding for rail would take another decade, and the price tag would overwhelm financing for every other transit project in the county’s SMART Plan, which maps out six transit corridors across the county.

Thursday, the Transportation Planning Organization must not pass up the chance to finally get the SMART plan on the road. Its members, representatives of the county and municipalities, should approve BRT as the wisest way to bring transit relief to South Dade residents.

The retro-sounding “Bus Rapid Transit” is the solution of the future. These buses won’t lumber along the Busway, which parallels U.S. 1. They are sleek and really fast, mimicking Metrorail in speed and comfort.

This would not be your grandfather’s bus service. The express buses would use bay doors that let passengers board as if on a train at 14 stations with permanent structures for shade and massive fans. And there’s speed. The new plan would boost the existing 20-mile Busway with rail-like crossing arms to block traffic and let buses speed through intersections. Advocates see the BRT option as the only realistic way to give commuters a significant assist.

County Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who met with the Editorial Board on Tuesday to pitch the plan, is ready to build the $300 million network of modernized buses with, he said, well-designed stations, advance ticketing and speedy buses. In addition, there will be components built in that allow the Busway to convert to rail. This could — and should — win federal funding fairly quickly and allow operations to start in 2022.

The mayor is well aware of the stigma of buses — they’re slow, they’re late, they’re dirty. “The only thing wrong with the Bus Rapid Transit plan is the word ‘bus,’ ” he told the Board.

He’s got a point.

If Gimenez wins the TPO’s backing — and we think he should — the county will apply for federal funding within weeks, with hopes that Washington and the state would agree to cover about two-thirds of the price tag in 2019.

Yes, we hear the cries from South Dade leaders. They say buses have failed, and rail is what they have been paying for and what was promised. They threaten to sue for a Metrorail extension.“People in the south understand that if they settle for a bus, they’ll never get a rail,” said Kionne McGhee, a Democratic state representative from South Dade. He’s leading the demand for rail. “Polls show that 70 percent of the people want rail, not buses,”

However, those promises were made by prior administrations, and they have now collided with financial reality and time constraints. Rail is not the cure-all. Metrorail never met its projected ridership, and do commuters really want to wait at least a decade for relief?

We urge McGhee and his constituents to make the quest for easier commutes the overriding priority. There’s a good reason it’s called the SMART plan.