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Miami-Dade Must Choose: Keep Transit Riders Connected or Dry?

In the battle over ad space, the county must decide whether new digital kiosks from one vendor are worth impacting the bus shelter revenue streams of another.

(TNS) — A cutting-edge network of interactive digital kiosks for Miami-Dade’s transit system may cost passengers an old-fashioned perk: shelter from the rain and the sun.

Outfront Media, the company that builds county bus shelters in exchange for selling ad space on the structures, recently warned it may have to abandon the venture if a rival company installs as many as 300 Wi-Fi-enabled kiosks at bus stops across the county. The kiosk company, Civiq, won a deal in January to spend about $20 million bringing the technology to Miami-Dade at no charge, partly in exchange for selling ads on the nearly 10-foot-tall pylons.

“We understand that the objectives of the digital kiosk program are fantastic — to provide free Wi-Fi to transit riders,” Outfront lobbyist Michael Llorente told county commissioners at a recent hearing. “But I can assure you that if that program is funded by essentially cannibalizing some of our top-producing bus shelters, a lot of those riders are going to be surfing the Internet under the sun and the rain. Because the money is simply not going to be there for the bus shelters.”

County vendors often warn of financial ruin if the government allows competition, and Outfront has millions invested in its near-monopoly on advertising throughout South Florida’s public-transportation system. It already wraps national brands around Miami-Dade Metromover cars, county buses and on placards at all Metrorail stations under an exclusive contract approved in 2015.

While Miami-Dade owns the bus shelters Outfront builds, the company pays to empty the trash at them, clean up graffiti, and repair the lights — maintenance costs Llorente hinted might not be sustainable if Civiq came into the picture.

The dispute with Civiq — best known for converting New York City’s phone booths into high-tech pods — comes during a sensitive time in the county’s long-delayed effort to protect more bus passengers from the elements as Miami-Dade looks to expand the program.

And Civiq, a Boston-based company, is facing a new fight with Miami-Dade over a contract it won just 10 months ago. It has yet to turn in requested locations for 150 kiosks, or installed Wi-Fi equipment in 10 county buses, as required under its deal. That prompted Miami-Dade to recently warn Civiq it risked losing the contract altogether.

“Immediate action is required on your part to provide these deliverables,” Angel Petisco, the county’s technology director, wrote a Civiq executive on Sept. 29.

A transit spokeswoman said Civiq had until Sunday to comply with Petisco’s requirements. Civiq representatives declined requests for on-the-record interviews.

Civiq faced a string of complications when it pursued the Miami-Dade deal. While the county runs one of the country’s largest bus systems, the most-sought-after bus stops for roadside advertisers sit within the city limits of Miami and Miami Beach.

Because cities negotiate their own advertising deals for shelters within municipal limits, Civiq was left to pursue separate agreements with those governments. While Miami-Dade used a provision in county law allowing a no-bid arrangement by branding the kiosk deal a marketing arrangement, Miami Beach is accepting competitive proposals for a potential kiosk system. Miami is still weighing its options.

The strife over the Civiq contract could complicate the pending effort to change Miami-Dade law to accommodate Civiq’s digital-advertising plans. The electronic ads it wants to broadcast at kiosks in bus shelters throughout the suburbs are currently banned by Miami-Dade’s sign ordinance, and open-space advocates won concessions before county commissioners approved the original Civiq contract on Jan. 24.

A proposed change to the sign rules narrowly passed a committee in October, with a final vote before the full County Commission is expected by the end of the year.

Outfront Media, the billboard giant based in New York, is opposing the ordinance while pursuing an expansion of its own shelter contract with Miami-Dade.

Shelters exist at only about a third of the 3,000 bus stops outside of city limits in Miami-Dade, and the county doesn’t want to spend tax dollars building more. Instead, it is asking Outfront and rivals to bid on a new advertising deal that would require construction of at least 1,000 more shelters.

“We’ve been waiting five years for it,” Commissioner Xavier Suarez said of a new bus-shelter contract. “It breaks my heart to see people not able to get out of the sun or the rain.”

For Barbara Walters, who lives in Kendall and runs a marketing company, rain makes a big difference when she takes the bus. When she’s heading north, her bus stop off Southwest 99th Street offers only a bench under a thicket of trees. The one across the street has a full shelter, so when it pours, she’ll wait there and dodge rush-hour traffic when the 104 Bus arrives.

“I just want to turn around and go home,” said Walters, a longtime transit advocate who is a regular bus passenger. “I’m in sales, so I don’t want to walk in to meet a client looking like a drowned rat.”

With Suarez and other commissioners pressing to award the new shelter contract, the Civiq deal is billed as milestone upgrade for the county’s transit riders. Civiq agreed to take over all Wi-Fi systems on Metrorail and buses, saving Miami-Dade about $2 million in cellular charges it pays each year providing the service. Civiq also would expand Wi-Fi to all 850 of the county’s buses. Only about 20 percent offer Wi-Fi now.

The contract calls for kiosks at Metromover and Metrorail stations and more than 100 bus stops throughout the county. That’s a tiny portion of the more than 8,000 stops in Miami-Dade, including the ones within city limits, and Miami-Dade sees the limited quantity shielding the shelter program’s ad dollars.

Civiq kiosks radiate Wi-Fi about 200 feet away, allowing passengers waiting for a bus to continue watching a video or maintain a Facetime call without losing wireless Internet once their ride arrives. The 55-inch screens offer touch-screen information on the transit system, and feature a string of gizmos that include the ability for a user to snap a selfie and receive it by email.

The kiosks also are billed as early infrastructure for making Miami-Dade a “smart” community, with cameras and sensors on the devices able to help county officials monitor traffic, crime, pollution and other factors. Though touted as a breakthrough for Miami-Dade, the contentious deal now evokes a hint of wistfulness from transit chief Alice Bravo. Her agency negotiated the original Civiq deal, and now is helping manage the first steps in what could be a termination if Civiq and the county can’t resolve the dispute.

“The digital kiosk was going to have an interactive touch screen, information alerts, video surveillance,” Bravo said Friday, using the past tense throughout in referring to the Civiq agreement. “It was almost like having a Siri. But with transit.”

©2017 Miami Herald Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.