BayLink: "Ass Backwards"?

By John Dorschner

    Less than 20 hours after a committee made an "historic" step toward creating what seemed like a clear path for BayLink light rail across the MacArthur Causeway, the path appeared considerably more complex when other leading transit advocates weighed in. 
Maurice Ferre

    "I think we are doing this ass backwards," said Maurice Ferre, a former Miami mayor and longtime member of local transit boards.
    "I think he's absolutely right -- we are doing this somewhat backwards," said Francis Suarez, a Miami commissioner and vice chair of a county transit committee.
Frances Suarez
Suarez is worried about the BayLink plan to seek federal funding -- a process that might take seven years, he estimates.  With Miami traffic already a nightmare, waiting for fed money could be disastrous. "We're in a sinking boat, and going through the federal process means we might be 1,000 feet under water by the time help arrives. We need to fix this hole ... as soon as possible." 
         Ferre and Suarez were talking at a Friday meeting of the Transit Solutions Committee of the  Metropolitan Planning Organization, discussing another MPO committee's decision on Thursday to proceed in a double-prong attack to create BayLink, with Miami Beach proceeding on its own to get private and state funding, while the Miami portion would seek up to $300 million in federal funding.
        The full story on that meeting is available HERE.
         Ferre and Suarez agree on several major concepts, including the need to proceed simultaneously to fund four transit corridors -- South Dade along US 1, east-west near 836 and north-south along NW 27th Avenue, in addition to BayLink.
    Both want to figure out how much funding is available and then ask transit companies to propose the best use of that money -- and come up with the same transit mode for all four corridors, perhaps using the new maglev technology.
      Ferre, 80, and Suarez, 38, are not automatic allies. Ferre first held office in the 1970s and has spent years studying transit on the boards of the MPO and Miami-Dade Expressway Authority. Suarez, son of former city mayor and present county commissioner Xavier Suarez, has held office  since 2009.
    Some weeks ago, the two had a rather testy exchange at an MPO meeting when Francis Suarez suggested that voters might rather have BayLink rather than spend $800 million or more on a redo of the I-395 expressway that would include a "signature bridge." Ferre shot back with an admonishing lecture on transit funding, saying Suarez didn't understand that the bridge was already funded by the state and if the county rejected it, the money would go to build roads elsewhere in the state.

    For BayLink, Suarez said he plans to vote for the memorandum of understanding when it comes before the city commission, because it starts $10 million in design and environmental studies that the state, county and city have already funded, but he doesn't want to wait for the feds.
    Ferre said that rather than rushing ahead with BayLink, "I think you need to step back and put things in perspective. ...
    "We keep hitting the brick wall and not seeing the door on the side. If money is the No. 1 problem, then let's see what money is available, what corridors we want to do -- and who is out there in the private sector."
    Ferre pushed for an RFI -- request for information -- asking major transit developers what they would do with the money -- and what kind of mode they recommend.
    He said he met recently with a company building maglev -- magnetic levitation -- lines in Asia, including a six-kilometer stretch opened at a South Korean airport earlier this month.

Maglev at Incheon International Airport
    Ferre said maglev appears to be far cheaper than light rail -- and the company suggested it might be willing to finance up to 40 percent of the costs -- meaning a public-private partnership that would be something like a mortgage, with local governments repaying over time.
    "If you bring these big guys together" -- the large transit companies -- "and say now we're open to the technology," Ferre said, "I think you're going to be shocked to how many people would come here."
    Suarez said he agreed with much of Ferre's views -- including sending out an RFI, seeking the best technology for all expansions.
    Doing "all four corridors at the same time," or almost at the same time -- "that's the only solution that's going to fly," because the different corridors each have their advocates, Suarez said.
    The BayLink memorandum must be approved by the commissions of the two cities and the county, then by the full MPO board.
    When it comes to the city of Miami, Suarez said, he'd vote for it to start the process, but "if I have any influence, I'm not going to wait for federal funds to do the Miami part."

              Moss: I Won't Support Just One Corridor

    County Commissioner Dennis Moss, chair of the MPO's transit solutions committee, said the committee's task is "to do a plan for all of these corridors. ... I'm not going to support a plan that's ... just for this corridor. Everything has to move forward at the same time."
Dennis Moss

    Going ahead with all four corridors simultaneously becomes a huge financial commitment, of course. 

   Miami-Dade Transit Director Alice Bravo has pointed out to the MPO that Denver's transit system was able to build new lines because political leaders agreed on priorities, with the heaviest ridership routes coming first.
    Moss said said he wanted to make sure "we don't have different modes of technology -- like Metromover, street car, Miami Beach street car, light rail," because of costs of maintenance and operation.
    He also didn't want to dismiss the possibility of seeking federal funds. "Those are our dollars," paid through federal income taxes. "Different corridors will have different financial solutions."

                         "Show Me the Money" 

Xavier Suarez
    Commissioner Xavier Suarez has been aggressive in seeking transit funds, including return of the half-penny transit tax to its original purpose, plus seeking MDX toll funds and state auto tag fees paid by Miami-Dade residents.
    Huge sums get spent on transportation in Miami-Dade: $2 billion for the Miami Intermodal Center, $1 billion for the port tunnel, $600 million for the 836-826 interchange. But such funds are not available for mass transit.
       For discussions about the large challenges in getting funding, see earlier stories on this website. 

             Ferre: "We Must Federalize These Projects"

       UPDATE: The first version of this story stated:  "In particular, neither expressed any desire to wait for federal funding, which could be six or more years away -- if it comes at all."
        In fact, both Ferre and Suarez said Friday that they wouldn't avoid federal funding in the long-term. 
        After reading that first version of the story Saturday, Ferre sent an email clarifying his position:  
        "I never said abandon any federal funding. We must federalize these projects. There are no shortcuts. There is no magic bullet."
        Ferre wrote that because of local politicians killing road projects over the past several decades, the county "has been the brunt of Tallahassee jokes for the last,at least,40 years where I have been an observer/participant. 
      "As one of nine Florida Transportation Commissioners for the past five  years, I now see it clearer than ever. Central Florida and the Tampa Bay Area are united, follow procedures and play the game with keen excellence, as does Jacksonville. MDC is traditionally divided, parochial (NIMBY) "where is my districts share," uninformed and looking for silver bullets.
       "The old MPOs had short meetings, with bare quorums of uninformed, unread agendas,with rubber stamped resolutions of timid, unimaginative staffs with 'don't rock the boat" mentalities imposed by the District Bosses.We were our own worst enemy. ...
           "For the first time since the 1980's, I now see the beginnings of clearer thinking, possible consensus and maybe even good leadership. Our possibilities of breakthroughs [are] good, provided our decisions are grounded in common sense."


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