Fund Buses or a Metrorail Extension? A Showdown Looms Over Transit in Miami-Dade

Transportation planners are set to choose between $243 million in funding for new buses and an uphill battle for an extension of its rail system.

by Douglas Hanks, Miami Herald / July 19, 2018

(TNS) — After spending millions of dollars studying transit options in South Dade, county leaders face a showdown vote: Endorse a $243 million plan for Miami-Dade’s first modernized bus system or continue fighting for a Metrorail extension that consultants say is too expensive to get built.

The county’s Transportation Planning Organization is set to pick one of the transit modes Thursday in an afternoon session that would mark the first major decision to come from the 2016 SMART Plan. The estimated $50 million study and planning process raised the hopes for more rail when it launched two years ago, but now has top county administrators arguing modernized buses are the only viable choice for the first of six corridors to receive a recommendation.

Mayor Carlos Gimenez this week took reporters on a 20-mile bus ride to tout the technology he wants to bring to South Dade: “rapid-transit” buses designed with wide doors for group boardings and running on an existing busway that would be equipped with intersection gates to block traffic and “iconic” stations with ticket kiosks requiring passengers to pay in advance. A county consultant also claims the buses could match the 45 minutes it would take Metrorail to travel new South Dade stations, thanks to express bus routes skipping multiple stops.

“It has all of the benefits of a train,” Gimenez said, “at a much reduced cost.”

South Dade leaders held their own press event Wednesday to reject the county’s gloomy financial analysis as bogus, and the bus proposal as another betrayal for a region that had been promised a Metrorail extension when county voters approved a half-percent transportation tax in 2002.

“We’re calling ourselves warriors for rail,” said Cindy Lerner, a former mayor of Pinecrest. “We’ve been waiting all this time.”

Running for reelection in 2016, Gimenez filmed a campaign ad on a Metrorail car while talking of new trains and the SMART Plan under a headline “More Rail Lines.” Gimenez is positioning his 2017 proposal for rapid-transit buses as a potential waystation to rail since the planned 14 stations could be converted to train depots and a popular bus line could increase ridership to the point that Washington might take notice.

But the financial analysis his administration released ahead of Thursday’s vote shows daunting numbers for expanding Metrorail anywhere in Miami-Dade without new taxes.

Even if Miami-Dade manages to get Washington to pay for half of a new Metrorail line in South Dade, the $1.3 billion project would nearly double the system’s current operating budget and eat up most of the money the county has set aside for other transit projects, according to the one-page analysis the county released Tuesday evening from South Dade consultant AECOM.

The forecast said the 20-mile Metrorail extension would also cost about $67 million a year to maintain and operate. The 2019 county budget allocates $76 million for the existing 25-mile Metrorail system.

Combined with construction costs, the new South Dade line would consume 83 cents of every dollar of the $8.5 billion that Miami-Dade has estimated it can spend on major transit projects in the SMART corridors over the next 40 years. Building the proposed rapid-transit bus system on the existing busway would eat up just 13 cents.

South Dade is considered the quickest and cheapest route to a new rail line, since the 20-mile busway eliminates the need for costly land acquisition. In 2017, Gimenez proposed rapid-transit bus for both the south corridor and the northern SMART route running from the end of Metrorail to the Broward County line. With AECOM predicting that a South Dade Metrorail extension would drain the county’s transportation coffers, the figures are likely to be even gloomier for the north.

The South Dade Metrorail figures also are portrayed as optimistic, since they depend on what AECOM said is an unlikely scenario: Washington funding half of the construction tab. In its South Dade study, AECOM predicted up to 40,000 daily riders for a new South Dade Metrorail line. The rapid-transit bus system, which could avoid traffic by running along the existing South Dade busway, would have about 25,000 riders. While Metrorail would be 60 percent more traveled, it would be 458 percent more expensive than rapid-transit bus, according to the analysis.

Miami-Dade budgeted about $30 million for South Dade study and the two other SMART reports it’s producing, with Florida paying for the others. Despite Thursday’s vote to decide on a preferred transit mode for the South Dade corridor, the county’s Transportation Department still has not released the AECOM study designed to inform that decision. The department did release a 28-page draft executive summary of the report this week.

On Thursday, the 25-seat transportation board — a body that oversees local federal funding and has all 13 county commissioners as members — could pick “bus rapid-transit” or Metrorail as the preferred transit mode for South Dade. If bus wins, the county plans to quickly apply for a federal grant to cover up to $100 million of the costs in hopes that Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, currently head of a transportation appropriations committee, can help secure the funds next year. The county estimates it could have the new bus system running by 2022, at a cost of about $15 million a year.

If the board votes for rail at the 2 p.m. meeting in the Stephen Clark government center in downtown Miami, the county could still apply for federal dollars, but in a lengthier and more competitive process expected to start next year. The board could also delay the decision for another date, which county administrators say would set back the bus plan by a year given the looming deadline for federal grants.

The central fault line runs along money, with rail backers insisting Miami-Dade is being overly pessimistic in order to favor the bus plan. Rep. Kionne McGhee, D-South Dade, called the county forecasts “misinformation” at Wednesday’s press conference in South Miami.

Miami-Dade Commissioner Xavier Suarez, whose district includes part of South Dade, is using his political committee Imagine Miami to have lawyers demand the county stop spending the half-percent sales tax on transit operations in order to fund new projects. He also wants to shift millions of dollars from the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority’s toll system and use it to expand county transit.

“We do have the money,” Suarez said. “We’ve had it. We’ve misspent it.”

Miami-Dade expects to spend about $100 million of the transportation tax on transit operations in 2019. Shifting it to new projects would require more property-tax revenue to transit — about $200 million now — or cuts in service for a system that has been cutting bus stops and suffering breakdowns due to maintenance issues in Metrorail trains.

Complicating matters is the fact that Miami-Dade recently launched a solicitation for private transit projects along the SMART corridors. Those ventures would use the same $8 billion tax stream slated for the bus and Metrorail options, but could end up resulting in a competing plan for South Dade. The Gimenez administration said it would scrap its federal application if a proposal landed that was too attractive to ignore.

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

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