Buses have failed in South Dade — we want rail

By Rene Infante

Many South Dade residents want rail along the U.S. 1 Busway, not “Bus Rapid Transit.”
Many South Dade residents want rail along the U.S. 1 Busway, not “Bus Rapid Transit.”

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos A. Gimenez’s answer to South Dade’s daily traffic nightmare — the commute between the south end of the county and points north, where the majority of people work and do business — is no answer at all. More buses, fancier buses, are not a solution.

South Dade must be connected to the rest of Miami-Dade by the long-promised extension of rail along the U.S. 1 corridor. Rail is what the people want; rail was what voters envisioned when they approved the 2002 public transportation sales tax.

As Herald columnist Fabiola Santiago so aptly wrote, Gimenez is short-changing South Dade residents. The mayor’s proposed quick-fix does not address the needs of a neglected area of the county.

Bus Rapid Transit —BRT — simply adds more buses on an existing Busway with some cosmetic changes, such as nicer bus stops. This will not significantly alter the bumper-to-bumper traffic in and out of South Dade, nor will better buses attract a new generation of transit commuters.

It is estimated that rail expansion would increase the number of transit riders by tens of thousands compared to the far more modest growth generated by additional bus service. As the Busway along U.S. 1 has demonstrated for more than two decades, people will not get out of their cars in great numbers to ride a bus. Rail, on the other hand, is a popular and efficient mode of urban travel worldwide for users at every income level.

From Shanghai to Dubai, urban areas that strive to be world class are investing heavily in rail. In the United States, Los Angeles has undertaken one of the nation’s biggest transportation projects, investing billions to expand its rail system. Yes, rail is considerably more expensive than simply expanding bus service. But, there is also a high price for not investing in the right transit mode.

Sadly, BRT will do little, or nothing, to spur economic development in South Dade. Without rail — the modern, efficient transit system we need — future generations will be left behind relegated to weak economic growth and low-paying jobs.

What a lost opportunity. Today, South Dade is among the few places in the county that offer affordable land and workforce housing. The area is ripe for new commercial development. But, thanks to Miami-Dade’s poor policies and planning, we lack the infrastructure necessary to attract new businesses that would create the jobs that residents need.

The county’s Transportation Planning Organization is scheduled to vote on July 19 to proceed with BRT as a South Dade strategy. At stake is far more than one more vote-taking on a long-debated transportation issue. The simple truth: If we settle for buses, South Dade will never get rail.

True, the mayor is in a jam. Despite the half-penny transit tax, there are not sufficient revenues to fund rail expansion along all of the county’s designated transit corridors, including those in North Dade and Miami Beach. Everyone is demanding better transportation solutions.

But why settle for expanding something that we already have, a dedicated Busway, that has done little to get people out of their cars and reduce the more than 90-minute commute between South Dade and downtown? It’s time to get serious about mass transit in Miami-Dade and change the dynamics of how we move about the county.

Elected officials, like medical doctors, should take a Hippocratic Oath that pledges, “Do no harm.” Spending scarce transit dollars to expand a bus system that doesn’t deliver what we need is worse than doing nothing at all.

If elected leaders cannot fulfill their commitment to bring rail to our community, the people of South Dade would certainly be within their rights to renege on their commitment to fund transit improvements and work to recall the half-penny transit sales surtax that we helped pass 16 years ago.

Santiago said it best: It’s time for residents to muscle in!

Rene Infante is chairman of the Economic Development Council of South Miami-Dade.