|Written By John Dorschner--BT Contributor; Photos By Silvia Ros|
AFTER DECADES OF POOR PLANNING, UNFULFILLED PROMISES, AND POLITICAL SQUABBLING, THERE ARE NO EASY SOLUTIONS TO OUR TRANSIT NIGHTMARE
Thanks to the civic-spirited voters of Miami-Dade County, I have two fancy new stop signs at my nearby intersection. The green bases are decorated with scrolls, topped by little green palm trees.
Cost for the pair: $1990, including installation.
We live on a corner in central Miami Shores, and, frankly, the old signs, with plain bases and no palms, seemed just fine to me, but not as fine as the new ones.
Being a veteran (cynical?) journalist, I suspected I knew how the stop signs were financed. I called Village Hall, and finance director Holly Hugdahl told me the price and confirmed my suspicions: the transit tax paid for my upscale stop signs. You know, the half-penny sales tax here that voters overwhelmingly approved in 2002 to stop traffic nightmares because, in return, politicians promised 90 more miles of Metrorail and almost double the bus fleet.
Well, Metrorail expanded 2.4 miles, an extension reaching Miami International Airport. The number of buses is about the same now as it was then.
“If you have something whatsoever to do with transit in Dade, you should hide your head in a bag -- because mass transit is in crisis,” says Paul Schwiep, chairman of the board that oversees the half-penny expenditures. Boasting about the tiny rail extension to the airport? That’s “like lipstick on a pig.”
It turns out my fancy Miami Shores stop signs are symbols of the long, sad history about how our political dysfunction has led to teeth-grinding traffic jams.
Lately, complaints about traffic have become deafening.
“We’re at the breaking point,” says Mitchell Bierman, chairman of the transportation committee for the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce. “Many are spending an hour and a half on a trip that should take 30 minutes. There have been so many discussions this year, among business leaders, government leaders, the general public.... There’s no way you can keep adding lanes to I-95 to accommodate the traffic; the same with US 1.”
There’s plenty of talk about new rail lines, dedicated bus lanes, and the like. Even Biscayne Timesterritory in northeast Dade, often ignored in transit discussions, is now sometimes included, with the idea of the proposed Tri-Rail Coastal Link near US 1 from downtown Miami to West Palm Beach.
Talk -- but little action because there’s no easy money. So many voters are angry about the blown promises on the half-penny that no politician dares ask them for more.
They may not need to. Huge sums -- billions -- get spent on transportation all the time in Miami-Dade, like the $2 billion for the Miami Intermodal Center near the airport. But to divert such funds to mass transit involves navigating a bewildering alphabet soup of acronyms that control transportation spending in Miami-Dade -- entities that often work at cross purposes or with completely different theories of how to solve the transit crisis.
Interviews with three possible county mayoral candidates (two announced, one uncertain) reveal major contrasts in ideas. Therein lies the rub.
Alice Bravo, the county’s new transit department director, has told commissioners that she came away from recent visits to Washington and Tallahassee with one underlying message: “We need a unified plan” in order to get state or federal funds.
Unity in Miami-Dade? “There’s no consensus here,” says Maurice Ferré, a former City of Miami mayor and county commissioner who’s been sitting on transportation boards for decades. “We have historic decisions made by ethnicity, geography, race. We’re living in an amazingly divided county.”
One example: Ferré and many other board members of the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority believe that express buses moving on the shoulders of toll roads offer the best solution, while many transit activists, business leaders, and politicians favor light-rail trains along other corridors.
Still, some leaders embrace optimism. “The one thing that unites all races and generations,” says Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez, “everybody is stuck in the traffic.”
“If anyone wants to deal with 13 years of failure,” says county Commissioner Xavier Suarez, “it’s there. But in the past year, the stars have come into alignment. A consensus is building.”The county’s traffic problems have been building for decades, going back to at least the 1970s, when severe gas shortages, urban sprawl, and the ecology movement sparked civic leaders to consider a rail system.
In 1976, voters were asked to approve a penny sales tax to finance rail and other transit. It was rejected by a margin of 2-1. Local officials turned to Washington, which agreed “in principle” to pay 80 percent of Metrorail’s construction costs. The feds suggested a system from Dadeland to Liberty City. Hialeah politicians howled, and their city was added.
Before the feds approved funding, they insisted Dade hold another vote to approve the new Metrorail. Pols claimed Metrorail would be carrying 202,000 daily by the mid-1980s. They promised to double the number of buses to 900. Though voters weren’t being asked to increase taxes, the 1978 victory was shockingly tight, with just 50.34 percent in favor. The measure passed because black areas, which relied heavily on buses, voted overwhelmingly for the measure.
Promises quickly collapsed. In 1985, a year after the system opened, I wrote a cover story for the Herald’s Tropic magazine titled “Metrofail,” remembered mostly for its cover of white circus elephants walking in a line along an elevated track. After a year, Metrorail was carrying just 20,000 riders, one-tenth of projections. Operating costs were pushing the county deep into the red.
A half-dozen academic transportation experts I talked to at the time said the county would have been better off with a vastly expanded bus system running in express lanes; rail, they maintained, didn’t fit Miami’s urban sprawl. Many noted that the ridership was far heavier on the south end, favoring the white suburbanites going downtown, and was much sparser in the blue-collar areas of black Liberty City and Hispanic Hialeah. A Harvard transportation professor called Metrorail “the laughingstock of the nation.”
As deficits mounted, voters were asked three times in the 1990s to approve a penny sales tax for transit. The rejections were overwhelming.
In 2002, county Mayor Alex Penelas tried again. He lowered the request to a half-penny and increased promises, not only for huge expansions of Metrorail and buses, but also for free rides for seniors on all transit and no charges for anyone on the downtown Metromover. In addition, each city in the county would get a slice of the half-penny, with allotments based on population. Sweetening the pie even further, the referendum promised the tax would finance “improving major neighborhood roads and highways.” This time the measure passed overwhelmingly.
Six years later, the Herald’s Larry Lebowitz wrote that much of the half-penny had gone to relieving operating deficits, adding 1000 transit jobs, and spending $2 million for new office furniture.
“At the heart of the matter,” Lebowitz wrote, “the 2002 campaign avoided any mention of chronic financial problems that had plagued the transit agency, and it promised far more improvements than the tax could possibly deliver.”
Those chronic problems caused the feds to decide not to help fund a $700 million Metrorail expansion along NW 27th Avenue because the county wouldn’t have enough money to operate the extension.
Ric Katz, a veteran publicist who led the half-penny’s media campaign, said recently that neither he nor Mayor Penelas were aware of underlying problems. Only after the election, he now says, did he find out that transit managers knew the promised improvements were a fiction. “After it was over, people came up to me, ‘We knew all along it was a joke, but we kept our mouths shut.’”
Katz says the original idea had been to show the voters success by building one rail project, then asking them for another half-penny to develop the rest of the promises. But after the disastrous start, no politician wanted to suggest an extra tax.
In 2009, during the real-estate bust, the county commission formally voted that the bulk of the half-penny would fund operations, not new projects. “Bait and switch,” complained a Heraldeditorial.
These days, weekday ridership of Metrorail is 75,000, almost four times what it was in 1985, but only a third of what was predicted.
As from the beginning, two-thirds of today’s ridership is from the Dadeland suburbs to the downtown Government Center. The northern half, including Liberty City and Hialeah, accounts for a mere third. Buses, often ignored by politicians, continue to be the mainstay of county transport, with about 210,000 riders daily.
Still, those southern commuters depend heavily on rail; trains during rush hour are packed. But the twin legacies linger: a transit system always short of money and voters soured by wildly inflated promises.
Larry Wiggins experiences this legacy firsthand. He lives near Biscayne Boulevard and 125th Street, and works at the Wolfsonian-FIU Museum on South Beach.
“After driving this route for six years,” he says, “traffic has just become more and more of a pain.” He now takes a bus down the Boulevard to the Omni, where he transfers to another bus for the journey across the MacArthur Causeway to South Beach.
On a really good day, he says, if he leaves home about 7:00 a.m., the trip takes 30 minutes by car, and 40 or 50 minutes by bus. He saves on gas, and wear and tear on his car, and he’s able to enjoy the ride, using his phone for e-mails and reading articles. “When I get to work,” he adds, “I’m not nearly as frazzled.”
Returning home is a different story. At about 5:00 p.m., he tries to catch an express bus at 13th Street and Washington Avenue. The large, new, accordion-style buses have helped, but even so, perhaps once a week, the first bus is full and passes him by. Sometimes the next bus may be full too.
Worse, the traffic leaving South Beach is horrible. It can take him 45 minutes to move from his bus stop to the beginning of the MacArthur, a distance of 1.4 miles. Getting home can become a two-hour odyssey.
He prefers the bus, he says, because he can at least relax, but he’d like to see more buses during rush hours. “And obviously,” he adds, “a light rail would be beneficial” across the causeway.For years, Chamber leaders, transit advocates, and some politicians have been pushing for Baylink, a light-rail line across the MacArthur Causeway. They’ve also been discussing an east-west corridor running along the 836 expressway west to 137th Avenue on the old CSX rail line; an extension of Metrorail from Dadeland to Homestead along US 1; and a corridor along NW 27th Avenue up to Sun Life Stadium. These last two might start as express bus corridors and switch later to light rail.
A lot of talk, but “for the last few years, we’ve all been tied up in knots,” says county Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava.
Recently, Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine decided not to wait for the county and began steps to build a light-rail system for South Beach that could link up with Baylink when it is developed. County Commissioner Suarez says the county may be getting closer to concrete moves on Baylink, but skeptical transit activists want to see how -- demanding, as did the defiant athlete in the movie Jerry Maguire, “Show me the money!”
Last summer, looking for answers, about 50 Miami-Dade business, civic, and political leaders flew to Denver, known for having expanded its light-rail and bus systems in a tough economic climate. The group returned with several key takeaways:
Commissioner Levine Cava says she was impressed that the area had a single district that consolidated all local governments’ transportation efforts, greatly simplifying decisions.
For Bravo, the head of Dade transit: “Denver was able to be successful because they came to a consensus” that the corridors with highest ridership potential should be built first.
Bierman, head of the Chamber’s transit efforts, took heed of Denver’s advice that “you have to get a toe in the water,” i.e., complete one project to impress the public. In Denver, that allowed transit leaders to persuade voters to approve a penny sales tax and obtain substantial federal funding.Miami-Dade leaders haven’t yet had the courage to extend that toe.
One problem: transportation decisions depend on the actions of the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO, county planning); the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority (MDX, the toll takers); the Citizens Independent Transportation Trust board (CITT, overseeing the half-penny); Miami-Dade Transit; the Florida Department of Transportation; and Tri-Rail, among others. Each controls pots of money and has its own agenda.
Perhaps the biggest conflicts involve MDX, which uses tolls from the county’s expressway system to fund road projects like the massive redo of the 836-826 interchange, which cost about $600 million -- more than the estimated cost of Baylink.
After MDX’s revenue substantially increased with electronic tolling, county Commissioner Suarez called MDX “a cash cow” and began pushing the state legislature to give the county a slice of those tolls to fund rail expansion.
There’s a hitch, though. Six of MDX’S 13 board members are appointed by Gov. Rick Scott, who is “totally opposed to mass transit,” says Ferré, a member of the MDX and MPO boards.
Ferré, a Democrat, points out that the Republican Scott is spending billions across the state on expressway toll lanes so that those who can afford it zip along, while most people are stuck in traffic.
What’s more, many in the MDX leadership, including Ferré, cite studies by the libertarian Cato Institute arguing that rail is an outmoded technology and that the future is best served by buses operating on designated expressway lanes.
In Miami-Dade, MDX is planning to use widened shoulders on expressways to run buses.Adam Old, a former El Portal councilman who’s working with the new nonprofit TransitAlliance.Miami, agrees with many other transit advocates that running buses on the expressway shoulders is “not an equitable solution” because the shoulders are often littered with broken cars and hubcaps, and it’s not easy to get on or off such buses.
Ferré notes that heavy rail like Metrorail can cost up to $400 million a mile, compared with maybe $200 million a mile for light rail and under $100 million for dedicated bus lanes. He believes that in a few years maglev (magnetic levitation) technology could be considerably cheaper than any of these by allowing transit vehicles to use a system of magnets to zoom along without touching the ground.
Charles Scurr, executive director of CITT, says leaders shouldn’t be wedded to any particular technology. “Each corridor has its own unique solution,” he notes, although he and most other leaders believe an elevated system like Metrorail is too expensive for future expansion.
“We’re going to need five, six, seven partners to fund each corridor,” Scurr says. Among the ideas: creating neighborhood taxing districts funded by businesses that could profit from nearby transit lines.
What about using the half-penny sales tax for its original purpose of funding new projects? At present, most of its funds are already spoken for. Of the $278 million the tax is expected to generate this fiscal year, $133.4 million will go for operating and maintaining the current transit system; $72 million to pay off debt (for the 2.4-mile Metrorail extension and other projects); and $57 million to cities, to fund things like my fancy stop signs.
Last year county Commissioner Suarez championed a proposal to get the half-penny back to its original purpose. Mayor Gimenez says that when he was a commissioner, he voted against using the half-penny to fund operations, but as mayor, he’s seen how the county budget came to depend on those funds; to cut them suddenly would mean dramatic reductions in service. “We have to wean ourselves off that money,” he warns. That process, says the mayor, could take about five years.
The CITT board ended up passing a watered-down resolution asking that the half-penny begin to be used for development within three to five years. “We can’t wait five years” to start building rail, said Miami City Commissioner Francis Suarez at a recent MPO meeting.
Many politicians are quick to suggest public-private partnerships. Katz, the publicist who has worked on many transportation projects, says such P3 deals for mass transit generally mean a developer pays much of the original construction cost, but that “it’s like mortgaging a house -- you still have to pay the developer.”
Another possibility is to shift money from other transportation projects. Miami Commissioner Francis Suarez wondered out loud at the recent MPO meeting whether voters would prefer to have Baylink or spend $850 million for an improved interchange on I-395 and a “signature bridge” over Biscayne Boulevard near NE 13th Street, a project funded by state funds and MDX tolls.
Ferré was quick to answer. The project was already funded, he said, and if local leaders reject the fancy bridge, the state money will go to a project elsewhere in the state.
Recently there’s been talk about once again, after a long hiatus, asking the feds for help, starting with Baylink.
“There may be a little funding, but not much,” says Bierman at the Chamber. The days of 80 percent funding are likely gone forever, he notes. What’s more, the federal application process can take years.Katz, the publicist, warns about the transit lesson going back to Metrorail: “Remember, you not only have to build it, you have to have the funds to keep operating it.”
The larger issue is who decides to spend the money. Commissioner Levine Cava refers to Miami-Dade’s various transit boards as a “messy infrastructure.... It’s kind of bewildering, so many different entities. It’s hard to come up with important decisions.”
Katz says there’s one final arbiter: “That’s the MPO’s job.”
The Metropolitan Planning Organization’s governing board consists of 23 members: the 13 county commissioners, plus representatives from cities, the school board, and MDX. Too often in the past, critics say, the MPO has done little, sometimes even rubber-stamping the state’s road projects without discussion.
“Historically, the MPO has not been allowed to be an aggressive entity,” acknowledges Katz.
Levine, the Miami Beach mayor, complains of MPO that “nothing’s gotten done.”
At present, expanding the rail or bus lanes isn’t a high priority for MPO. Its top three are improving Kendall Drive, Flagler Street, and the 27th Avenue corridor.
Still, in recent months, the MPO has been exploring proposals for mass transit, and its board hopes to craft a master plan for solving traffic problems. MPO’s new executive director, Aileen Bouclé, is confident the group can make hard decisions. “We’re thinking big,” she says, “and we’re going to come to a consensus.”
She isn’t certain, however, when that might happen.
The two declared candidates for the county mayoral election in August start talking about transit in the same way.
Mayor Gimenez: “There is no one silver bullet.”
Raquel Regalado: “There’s no magic bullet.”
Gimenez is planning to announce a long-term transportation program soon, according to his spokesman, Michael Hernandez.
Speaking generally in a telephone interview, Gimenez says there must be various solutions, including light rail and express buses, but it’s “not going to be Metrorail.... MDX has to be part of the mix. We need greater communications so that we have a unified voice. There are very scarce dollars.”
The mayor is mindful of his main constituents: “The majority are going to be riding in cars, utilizing roadways we spent billions of dollars on. That you cannot turn a blind eye to.”
Gimenez says his top priorities are Baylink and the east-west Kendall Drive corridor. He points out that in five years, after the county weans itself from using the half-penny for operating expenses, $2 billion should be available over the next 30 years to develop new transit -- a sum that can be multiplied by issuing bonds.
Gimenez recently hired Alice Bravo as transit director, and she’s been working hard on initiatives, including the large accordion-style buses to serve the busiest routes, and express trains for rush hour on Metrorail.
“You can’t force anyone to change their behavior” when it comes to transportation, Bravo says. “You have to make it convenient for them -- saving time and money is usually the way.”
Bravo’s biggest effort is the real-time global positioning of all rail and buses. It will be available by the end of March, she says. This is a huge benefit that’s already available in many of the nation’s major transit systems. One popular use for it: Most buses (except during rush hours) run infrequently, perhaps every 30 minutes, throughout the day. With a phone app, riders can check on a bus’s location and time their arrival at the bus stop to avoid a long wait.
The app is already downloadable: MDT Tracker.
Meanwhile, mayoral candidate and school board member Raquel Regalado emphasizes restoring accountability to Miami-Dade Transit, whose reputation was devastated by the half-penny disaster. She also criticizes the mayor and commissioners for approving large property developments without demanding plans on how transit can be improved to accommodate the development. One question she asks: For the northwest mega-mall being planned near I-75 and the turnpike, why didn’t the county insist on a strip of land for a future rail line, even if the line is decades away?
Regalado believes expressway buses may be the fastest, least expensive solution, though she doesn’t rule out rail in the future. But first, she maintains, the county must fix the existing system and have clean buses that run on time. She cites the unending complaints about Dade transit on Twitter as an indication of how bad the system is. Over time, a well-run transit system can attract more riders and build a reputation, leading to more funding.
“Right now,” says Regalado, “we just have no credibility with the federal government.”
She also emphasizes the need to improve car traffic, including the use of smart sensors that automatically adjust stoplights to changing conditions; keeping the seaport open around the clock and reducing tolls to reward truckers for late-night runs that keep them off the roads during rush hours; and having cops at main intersections during rush hours to control traffic flow.
Commissioner Xavier Suarez, frequently mentioned as a possible mayoral candidate, is notably vocal on transit, even paying for TV ads to trumpet his plans for building four transit corridors -- Baylink; east-west along the 836; north-south along NW 27th Avenue to Sun Life Stadium; and along S. Dixie Highway from Dadeland to Homestead. He says these four can be done for under $2 billion. Suarez considers dedicated bus expressways “a temporary measure; ultimately we need an overall connector.”
He has been particularly aggressive in seeking funds, demanding that the half-penny be spent on new development, seeking toll money to pay for mass transit, and asking the state to return to the county the $167 million that local drivers pay annually for auto tag renewals.
None of these efforts has yet been fruitful, but Suarez continues to be adamant about the direction the county needs to take. “No more highways, no more interchanges,” he says.
His push for consensus has meant that he thinks all four new transit corridors should be top priority. “No one’s going to be left behind,” he insists.
Both transit director Bravo and the MPO’s Bouclé have said that priorities need to be set. Suarez counters that it’s important to avoid a political food fight.
Still, he emphasizes, some positive transit developments are already happening.
One of those positives is a rail hub being built near Government Center in downtown Miami to serve All Aboard Florida and Tri-Rail.
All Aboard Florida is a private effort of Florida East Coast Industries (FEC) to provide train service first to West Palm Beach (starting in 2017), then to Orlando. In some ways, it’s a real estate play, with FEC already starting construction on large projects at its planned stations in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and West Palm Beach. Its transit goals are ambitious: projecting 5.3 million riders annually by 2020.
Tri-Rail, controlled by Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties, carries about 16,000 passengers on weekdays through the three counties on a line that generally runs just west of I-95, except in Miami-Dade, where it veers westward to Hialeah and the Miami airport.
“Everybody knows it was put in the wrong place,” says Katz, but when it started in the late 1980s, that was the only route available.
At present, a Tri-Rail commuter from Fort Lauderdale must go to Hialeah, then jump on Metrorail to connect with the rest of Miami-Dade. This will change with a $70 million project, including $13.9 million from the half-penny, to create a link from FEC’s downtown depot north to NE 71st Street, and then swinging four miles to the west to join up with the main line.
Jack Stephens, Tri-Rail’s executive director, says he still needs $20 million from the state to complete the link, but that’s expected, and the new line is scheduled to open next year, adding about 2000 riders a day.
Ferré, the MDX and MPO member, wonders how Tri-Rail can justify a $70 million downtown link when it needs a $50 million annual operating subsidy to serve a mere 18,000 daily riders. “We put our money into the wrong things,” he says.
Perhaps more useful would be Tri-Rail’s proposed Coastal Link, the commuter train from downtown Miami running just west of US 1 on the same tracks that All Aboard Florida will be using through Palm Beach County. Possible stops include Midtown, NE 54th Street, NE 79th Street, NE 125th Street, North Miami Beach, and Aventura. “That would be fantastic,” says Adam Old, the El Portal transit advocate.
Its timeline, however, remains problematic. Stephens said he’s waiting for Tri-Rail’s downtown link to be finished before developing Coastal Link, which will cost an estimated $800 million to build from Miami to Jupiter; about half of that may be a first phase from downtown Miami to the New River in Broward. “The only way that it’s financially viable is with the assistance of our federal partner,” a partnership that hasn’t existed in South Florida transit for many years.
Now, at last! Let’s get back to my $1190 stop signs, part of that $57 million the cities are expected to get from the half-penny in fiscal 2016. Miami gets $17 million, Hialeah $9.2 million, and Miami Beach $3.6 million.
In northeast Dade, Aventura is expected to receive $1.5 million, North Miami $2.4 million, North Miami Beach $1.7 million. The Miami Shores share is nearly $400,000.
These local funds go for street improvements, better sidewalks, bus benches, and other transit-related items. Some cities, like Opa-locka, have been caught using the money for general expenditures, which is not allowed; but Holly Hugdahl, the Miami Shores finance director, says she’s very careful with half-penny funds, always checking with CITT before spending because the trust’s rules are complicated. For example, landscaping for a new median is permitted, while landscaping for an existing median can’t come from the half-penny.
Recently the Shores has been using its share for improved sidewalks, a new machine part for the village’s street sweeper…and stop signs. The “basic” new stop sign on my corner cost $670 plus $110 installation, Hugdahl tells me. The stop sign on the other side of the intersection -- with the names of the streets on top -- was $1100 plus installation, making it $1990 for the pair.
Another CITT rule is that 20 percent of each town’s half-penny share must go for free transit services. In Miami, that has meant a huge trolley system that carries 3.6 million riders annually around neighborhoods, including Midtown, Omni, and the hospital district. Coral Gables puts all of its half-penny proceeds into its trolley, which carries more than a million riders a year between the Douglas Metrorail station and downtown Gables.
Miami’s trolley system was boosted by federal stimulus funds, which were used to purchase 19 vehicles. A trolley spokesman says another 15 were bought with the half-penny, which also pays for all operating expenses.
Some smaller towns, like El Portal and Biscayne Park, don’t have enough population or physical size for trolleys. North Miami shuttles are reported to transport 460,000 a year, Aventura 270,000. Miami Shores vans are at 20,000.
Ultimately, many urban planners, such as Miami’s Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, believe the only long-term solution for traffic woes is to have people live closer to where they work.
In recent years, the issue has grown more severe as high-rises sprout up along the waterfront, while affordable workers’ housing is often available only in the far western and southern suburbs.
Many planners say that inclusionary zoning -- requiring large developers to include a percentage of affordable units with their projects -- is the answer. More than 500 local governments nationwide have enacted variations on this theme. “The resistance locally is huge,” says Plater-Zyberk, former dean of the University of Miami School of Architecture.
In recent months, county Commissioners Suarez and Barbara Jordan have each talked about some kind of ordinance requiring developers to pay for affordable housing, but neither has yet introduced a resolution. The Builders Association of South Florida has said it opposes the idea, and Suarez acknowledges that the concept may not have enough votes to get through the commission.
Still, almost everyone agrees, the county’s leaders must do something dramatic about traffic.
“Transportation is really the number-one issue effecting Miami-Dade,” says Ferré, the former mayor, “because it impacts on tourism, jobs, and family life. It really cuts through every segment of the society.”