Don’t want a ticket to ride this train

NO FARE: A Metromover glides past the Third Street Station toward Brickell on its downtown route.
NO FARE: A Metromover glides past the Third Street Station toward Brickell on its downtown route. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

There’s little to like about the Miami-Dade Transit system. Many perceive it to be unreliable, inconvenient and inaccessible. But there was one form of public transit in Miami-Dade County that is almost universally loved: the Metromover.

First opened in 1986 and expanded in 1994, this above-ground people mover is by no means perfect, largely because its route only covers the Downtown, Brickell and Omni neighborhoods. But it’s the only transit system in Miami that is completely free to all riders, making it an easy, no-cost way to commute around the center of the urban core.

But the one thing that people loved most about the Metromover, the fact that it was free, was threatened when local politicians courted the idea of charging fares. Thankfully, this idea was quashed on Tuesday when county commissioners voted overwhelmingly against the proposal.

The idea of charging fares was patently ridiculous. Local politicians know that the public craves greater access to public transit, and to make one of its offerings less accessible would be inexcusable.

In 2002, voters approved a half-penny surtax with proceeds benefiting public transportation projects. One of the many promises lawmakers made to the community was that the tax would allow the county to make Metromover free to all as a way to boost middling ridership. That idea proved to be wildly successful. Ridership doubled in just three years and now currently averages approximately 10 million passengers yearly.

The officials who proposed the idea cited tightening budgets as a reason to charge fares, but the Metromover is by far the most cost-efficient transit solution to operate in the county. Currently, it encompasses less than 2 percent of the county’s transit budget and accounts for 11 percent of its ridership, a big bang for the transit system’s buck. In addition, it costs just $1 to transport a rider by Metromover while it costs over $4 to transport a rider by Metrorail or bus.

While a small fare doesn’t seem like a lot to ask for riders, the impact on ridership could be significant. While it is not known exactly what the direct impact could potentially be, there’s undoubtedly a significant portion of casual riders like myself who would be discouraged from using the system if a fee were imposed.

As downtown has grown over the years, the Metromover has proved to be a way of keeping commuters off the roads, helping to reduce traffic in the congested area.

The system is particularly invaluable when Biscayne Boulevard shuts down, as it often does for marquee events like the Miami Marathon, Ultra Music Festival and Formula E, as it allows riders to travel fairly painlessly in the area when traveling by car is a nightmare.

As downtown Miami continues to add tens of millions of square feet of residential, office and retail space in the coming decade, the Metromover will continue to make it easy for these new masses of people to travel within the area without further clogging already-congested roads.

For many Miami-Dade County residents, the Metromover is the only transit system they use in a given year. They might not use it with the same frequency as a Metrorail or bus commuter would, but its ease of use and free admission makes it a no-brainer when traveling in the area.

It’s extraordinarily difficult to encourage use of public transit in this county; the government should not make it any more difficult. There are many, particularly young professionals, who want to use public transit to commute, but they are hindered because the county continues to prioritize car usage while providing lackluster alternatives.

Maintaining free Metromover and keeping prices low for Metrorail and buses while expanding services is essential not only to improving quality of life but also attracting and retaining young talent to our city.

According to a study by the Rockefeller Foundation, 54 percent of millennials “would consider moving if another city had more or better public transit.”

Many millennials are more likely to move here for the sunny weather than for our public transit offerings. And if we continue to offer inadequate public transit services, we may soon find ourselves driving our best young professionals out of town to more attractive cities.

Ricardo Mor is operations and programs coordinator for the Miami Center for Architecture & Design.