Miami-Dade Officials Want More Time to Study Metrorail Extension

After years of studying the feasibility of expanding the Florida county’s transit system, officials are asking for at least another year and more funding authority to continue their work.

by Douglas Hanks, Miami Herald / March 6, 2018

(TNS) — This spring was once slated for a milestone in Miami-Dade County’s renewed effort to expand Metrorail, with transit consultants facing a March deadline to deliver recommendations on where new rail lines made sense and where cheaper alternatives were unavoidable.

But that milestone is set to come and go, as the county’s transportation department is requesting another year of funding for the consultants studying transit options across Miami-Dade.

The extension, set for a vote before the County Commission on Tuesday, would officially extend the deadline to March 2019 for three consulting firms to finish their recommendations on the county’s SMART transit plan under engineering contracts worth about $33 million in all.

The firms are exploring rail and other alternatives for three SMART corridors — the busway in South Dade, the commuting route that runs east-west along the Dolphin Expressway, and the MacArthur Causeway linking Miami with South Beach. When the contracts went up for their initial approval last year, county commissioners imposed a deadline by granting spending authority on the SMART corridors only through March. Now the administration wants to extend the authority through March 2019.

“I said we’d push,” Transportation director Alice Bravo said of the discussions when the deadline was set in 2017. “But there are a lot of factors we don’t control.”

Bravo said there was some initial hope that Miami-Dade could win approval for a less extensive review of the various rail impacts required for federal transit funds — studies that include vibration analyses, potential effects on historic structures along the proposed routes, wetland risks, and maximum noise levels. But Bravo said regulators in Washington are requiring a more detailed review, which she thinks can be completed as early as the end of 2018 for the busway route. The studies of the two east-west routes — one to the western suburbs and one to South Beach — are expected to be done by the summer of 2019, according to department estimates.

Miami-Dade’s Transportation department did not promise to have its SMART studies done within a year when it submitted the consultant contracts for county approval under a five-year agreement that covers other tasks outside of the SMART blueprint. Esteban “Steve” Bovo, chairman of the County Commission, imposed the one-year spending limit through a committee vote in March 2017, and he included language allowing the department to return to the board for extensions.

“If we want to see something happen,” Bovo said during the meeting, “we need to put the pedal to the metal.” Bravo said her department would tell the consultants to respect Bovo’s timeline. “We’re going to tell them we need to figure out how to work with the state and the federal government to do this in a year,” she said.

Florida’s Department of Transportation is conducting studies on the other three SMART corridors — north from Miami to the Broward County line; northeast from Miami to Aventura; and in the Kendall area. An updated timeline on those studies was not immediately available Monday, but those state-funded consultants were not facing the same kind of deadline as the county ones.

The consultant studies are needed if Miami-Dade wants to secure state and federal funds for a major transit expansion. And while the reports will offer recommendations on the wisest transit mode for each corridor, that hasn’t stopped elected officials from moving forward with their own plans. Mayor Carlos Gimenez last year proposed rapid-transit bus systems for the north and south corridors, while a county transportation board dominated by Miami-Dade commissioners took a symbolic vote in September to endorse Metrorail for the same routes.

Actually pursuing new transit projects on any corridor would require more high-stakes, definitive votes. So would applying for the state and federal dollars crucial for a SMART plan estimated by one county-funded engineering study to cost $6 billion. The consultant studies, which include extensive public hearings and a range of engineering reports, are required for Miami-Dade to compete for those outside dollars.

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, the Miami Republican who chairs the appropriations subcommittee that oversees federal transportation funding, has criticized Miami-Dade for not reaching a quicker consensus on an ambitious transportation project.

“Is it bus or is it rail? There’s a huge difference,” Diaz-Balart said in a recent interview. “I will support whatever they come up with. Right now, they’re not even in consideration [for federal dollars for the SMART plan]. I could be helpful to them to try and expedite it. But it’s not a short process.”

©2018 Miami Herald Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.