Make public-transportation fares more equitable

Downtown Miami is booming. So why are Miami-Dade County taxpayers providing free Metromover service to the well-heeled business people, professionals, condo dwellers and tourists who make up most of the riders on the downtown rail system?

And why, while the downtown crowd rides for free, are the rest made to pay?

The bulk of the county’s transit riders, the moderate-income commuters, the working poor, homemakers, students, small children and others like them, are paying full or reduced fares on Metrobus and Metrorail. Free service for downtown riders puts them in the company of elders, Social Security recipients and disabled veterans who also ride fare-free.

In all, there were about 98.3 million boardings on Metrobus and Metrorail last year. There were about 9 million riders on the Metromover. For those unfamiliar with downtown Miami, the Metromover is an elevated, automated mass-transit people mover that runs on three loops through the Downtown, Brickell, and Omni neighborhoods. The system totals 4.4 miles with 22 stations roughly every two blocks.

Fare-free Metromover service was one of the benefits included in the People’s Transportation Plan (PTP) that was approved by Miami-Dade voters in 2002. The PTP provides for a half-penny transportation surtax intended to fund additional buses and routes, expand rapid transit and create thousands of transportation and construction jobs.

But the free Metromover service that made sense a decade ago is no longer needed to increase transit ridership in downtown Miami. Traffic gridlock, expensive parking and explosive growth in real estate and amenities are putting folks on the transit system.

According to a recent study published by the Miami Downtown Development Authority (DDA), Miami’s downtown area has emerged as a “dynamic urban center … a destination to live, work and play.” Since 2000, downtown Miami’s population has increased more than 99 percent, from 40,466 to 80,750 residents. The Brickell area alone, which is served by six Metromover stations, recorded a 151 percent increase in population between 2000 and 2014. The number of households in greater downtown has more than doubled in the past decade.

Incomes of downtown residents have also become significantly higher than those in the rest of the city and the county. Per-capita income in greater downtown in 2014 was $49,802, which is 88 percent higher than the city-wide figure ($26, 521) and more than double that of the county ($24,301). In the past four years, countywide per-capita incomes have risen a little more than 4 percent. In greater downtown, per-capita incomes rose nearly 30 percent, from $39,135 in 2010 to $49,801 in 2014. Median household incomes rose 8 percent in Miami-Dade County and a whopping 32 percent in downtown Miami. The median household incomein the Brickell area was $100,307 in 2014, more than triple the income of households in the rest of the city.

The growth and prosperity of residents and businesses in downtown Miami only promise to get better. The DDA estimates that projects currently in what it calls the “development pipeline” include an additional 25,500 condominium units; 5,300 apartments; 6,000-plus hotel rooms; 3.5 million square feet of office space; and 4 million square feet of retail. Today, there are 6,000 new condo units under construction in greater downtown.

In a few years, downtown Miami will hardly be recognizable as the same place it is today. That will be especially true when the All Aboard Florida rail station being constructed next to Government Center is complete.

The station will connect passengers from the rapid intercity rail service between Miami and Orlando — and with the Metromover, Metrorail and Metrobus. Under the current plan, only Metromover riders will pay no fare.

So why are Miami-Dade County taxpayers providing fare-free service on the downtown Metromover? And why are the riders on Metrobus and Metrorail made to pay? I believe that voters will agree — it is time for a change.

Barbara J. Jordan represents District 1 on the Miami-Dade County Commission.