Miami-Dade County is currently facing major transit decisions. We want to give our residents the relief they deserve and utilize our funding and resources as efficiently as possible so that the entire County can benefit.
Our recommendation for Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) for the South Corridor will give riders the features, amenities and time savings they would get with rail, but at a fraction of the cost, while being designed for conversion to rail when sufficient ridership justifies the additional costs of construction and long-term operations and maintenance.
There is a lot of misinformation about the benefits and costs of rail versus BRT. Both rail and BRT would get riders from Florida City to Dadeland South in about 40 minutes. Both would feature pre-payment, level boarding and comfortable stations. BRT offers much more operational flexibility to provide multiple express routes to and from different points along the corridor.
Rail projects are expensive to build and even more expensive to operate. The 20-mile South Corridor is about two miles shorter than the original 22-mile Metrorail line. Today, building a fully elevated Metrorail extension almost as long as the existing system would cost over $2 billion. As part of our project development studies, our team evaluated a Metrorail extension running at-grade. The cost is over $1 billion and the cost to operate is several times more than the operational costs for BRT.
A BRT system running at-grade would cost about $250 million and can effectively emulate rail by providing real passenger relief in terms of travel time savings, connectivity and accessibility. BRT can be planned and built within three years. A rail project, under the federal funding process, will take eight to 10 years.
Typically, large infrastructure projects are paid for with a combination of federal, state and local funding. Eighty percent of the original Metrorail line was paid for with federal funding, 10 percent came from the state and 10 percent from local County funds. Since that time, rail development costs have increased dramatically and the federal government’s appetite for funding large-scale rail projects has dwindled, with most current projects receiving only about 40 percent federal funding after going through the federal process for many years. Many projects have been approved that haven’t received funding yet.
For the SMART plan projects, the state has advised us that projects must meet the eligibility criteria for investment of state funds and demonstrate a sufficient return on investment in accordance to their guidelines, which includes a proposed source of federal funds and local commitment. The current Federal Transit Administration’s Capital Investment Grant Program is a highly competitive program that receives five times more funding requests than available dollars annually. Only projects with the best ridership projections, cost-effectiveness and future development potential succeed in obtaining federal funding. Applications for federal funding are due in September and the recommendations for funding from the federal government may be made as early as February 2019. If we delay our decisions, we’ll have to wait another year for the new application cycle. The time to move forward on real, feasible solutions is now.
As for providing a Tri-Rail (commuter rail) system for South Dade, as some proponents have suggested, it simply would not meet the needs and be more expensive to operate. Commuter rail on this corridor would need to have fewer stations and longer waits for service than for BRT or even Metrorail-at-grade.
Real BRT has never been operated in Miami-Dade and needs to be given a fair chance. It is a good first step to providing rapid transit results. The infrastructure will be designed so that it can be converted to rail when the density and ridership along the corridor warrant it. Implementing a BRT solution now would pay for the stations, gate arms and many elements that we would later need for rail. BRT vehicles would have preemption signals for all-green lights and operate on exclusive lanes, away from congestion — just like rail.
Cities in the U.S. that operate successful BRT programs include: Cleveland, Boston, Los Angeles, Seattle and Pittsburgh. Even New York City, the mecca for rail development in this country, has recently implemented over a dozen BRT routes and is planning more.
Our recommendation to select BRT is based on sound engineering, best practices and meets the projected ridership demand and service needs for this corridor at a fraction of the cost of a rail project. Building elevated rail at eight times the cost or at-grade rail at four times the cost of BRT cannot be justified particularly when considering the low population densities along this corridor.
Finally, we must consider our countywide transportation needs. The South Corridor is one of six premium/rapid transit corridors being considered as part of the SMART Plan. Concentrating almost all of our present resources on just one corridor is not the right thing to do.
BRT is the right choice for the South Corridor. It is a clean, safe, reliable and cost-effective transit solution that can be implemented relatively quickly and provide congestion relief options soon. Let’s not wait for more studies. We can get it done right, and do it now.
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Carlos A. Gimenez is the Mayor of Miami-Dade County.