Bovo: True leadership needed to enhance transit services to South Dade - yes, with fast buses

How bad is traffic from South Dade to downtown Miami? Don’t ask.
How bad is traffic from South Dade to downtown Miami? Don’t ask. Miami Herald

For the past four years, Miami-Dade residents have heard me speak about transportation issues facing our community and the need to make progress towards the delivery of real solutions.

I am also on the record stating that the People’s Transportation Plan (PTP), since the beginning, overpromised voters with visions of elevated Metrorail and expanded transit services all across our county. Many of these promises were financially unsustainable and never really possible. If we want to deliver a vision for a more resilient Miami-Dade, then we need to move beyond politics and make real decisions to invest our tax dollars in a manner that delivers new transit options for our entire county.

I am a rail supporter and have been one since before I was elected. Rail should be the ultimate solution for as much of Miami-Dade as possible.

Yet I am also a realistic rail supporter who understands that we need the proper infrastructure and ridership in order to make rail a reality. Rail is not achievable with the current financial and transit ridership environments. That is the truth. Today, we face numerous obstacles; including limited federal and state funding for transit, low ridership due to low-density development, and a realization that we must be able to afford the maintenance costs of any expansion so as to avoid the pitfalls we have encountered with the Metrorail and Metrobus systems.

In 2002 promises were made that were politically expedient yet misleading to deliver a “dedicated source of funding” for transit expansion. The county has been collecting this tax for nearly 16 years and with the exception of the Metrorail Airport Connection, most residents have yet to see and experience the expansion of our transit system.

During my time on the County Commission and the Transportation Planning Organization (TPO), my colleagues and I have worked tirelessly on identifying further funding to expand and maintain an expansion of our transit system. I have sponsored numerous legislative items that have been adopted by the Board of County Commissioners and the TPO, the sum effect which has resulted in approximately $8 billion over the next 30-40 years to construct, operate, and maintain the People’s Transportation Plan, now known as the Strategic Miami Area Rapid Transit, or SMART Plan.

Currently, at issue is the South Corridor of the SMART Plan. After two years of studying, the TPO is faced with selecting a locally preferred alternative or mode of transit for the corridor. This selection will allow the TPO to seek state and federal funding support in the development of a rapid transit system.

A recommendation has been made to propose building in the next three to five years a gold standard Bus Rapid Transit System (BRT) that is not replicated by the current bus service. This BRT service will provide premium transit stations with level boarding, pre-paid fares, climate controlled platforms, and rail-like crossing arms at every intersection to expediently service frequent and reliable transit service to the residents of South Dade.

South Dade residents suffer among the worst traffic nightmares of anyone in our county. That’s why this proposal has the support of numerous cities along the corridor, such as Pinecrest, Homestead and Florida City. It also has support from various organizations such as the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, the Latin Builders Association, the Builders Association of South Florida, and even the Miami Herald Editorial Board.

The estimated cost of this BRT proposal for South Dade is $300 million with an estimated two-thirds of the funding coming from state and federal sources. By comparison, extending rail south costs $1.5 billion with a timeframe of seven to ten years and no guarantee of state or federal funding to support the project. The total cost of constructing a rail system today along the South Corridor would consume over 70 percent of the total $8 billion available for the SMART plan over the next 40 years. The impact: after the South Corridor, not one of the five remaining SMART plan corridors would be constructed due to the lack of funding.

In addition, this South Dade BRT will not stop future discussions or analysis of at-grade Metrorail expansion along the South Corridor. The opposite is true, as the proposed premium transit stations are being developed with rail expansion in mind for the future, allowing them to be converted to service rail when funding is available. Most importantly, the TPO has proposed a benchmark, which I not only support but will demand, that would trigger efforts to expand rail once ridership hits 35,000 daily riders on the South Corridor. This is how to plan for the future in a prudent and fiscally responsible manner.

Miami-Dade has been in a political deadlock related to the delivery of transportation solutions for years. Millions of dollars spent on consultants to study corridors multiple times with each study resulting in the same outcome: no projects proceeding forward.

On Thursday, the TPO has the opportunity to put politics and unrealistic promises aside, and show true leadership in taking a bold first step in order to enhance transportation services to the residents in South Dade.

Now is the time to provide real transportation solutions that all Miami-Dade residents and communities can be proud of for generations to come.

Esteban L. Bovo Jr. is the chairman of the Miami-Dade Board of Commissioners.