Dream of East-West Corridor, Part II

By John Dorschner   
    What seems like an odd, circuitous route proposed for the county's east-west transit corridor has been part of the county's transportation plan for at least two decades.
    "Problem is no one has any institutional memory," says Maurice Ferre, 80, who himself has plenty of institutional memory having served on various county and state transportation boards for decades.
The new proposal for the east-west line (in blue), linking up with Metrorail (in red) to reach Government Center. The dotted line is a possible extension down to FIU on Gimenez' latest plan. Note: The blue line, following mostly the CSX track, will be near NW 12th Street, north of SR 836. An earlier post incorrectly had the east-west going just south of SR 836.

     The saga of the east-west dreams is a good example of transit history in Miami-Dade. After decades of talk, the corridor plan has become an odd, twisting route because of deals, hopes, frustrations, arguments and what Ferre calls "wink, wink" -- meaning politicians advocating one course while quietly allowing the opposite to happen.
    One key puzzle: Pols spent $2 billion on something called the Miami Intermodal Center, while an east-west rail corridor (which may have cost $1.5 billion at one point) has yet to materialize.
    To understand this, we need to go back to the early 1980s, with the designing of Metrorail.
Merrett Stierheim

    "I got the g-d d--n thing built," Merrett Stierheim told me on Thursday at a reception before a HistoryMiami symposium, then was admonished by his wife to stop using g-d expletives. "Say 'darn,' " she suggested.
    Stierheim  was county manager from 1978 to 1986, during the planning and construction of Metrorail. Even with a pile of federal money, he said, inflation was running over 10 percent, and that made it tough to finish the project.
    He said that Metrorail's northern path, heading northwest to Liberty City and then west to Hialeah was made for political reasons, to appease the black community and Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez.

           "You Don't Do a Billion-Dollar
                Project without Politics"
    "Everybody knows it should should have gone up I-95," the county's main north-south corridor. "But you don't do a billion-dollar project without politics getting involved."
    That's why two-thirds of Metrorail's riders still come from the southern suburbs, with a  straight shot to downtown, while only one-third come from the meandering northern path.
    Stierheim remembers the space for an opening at Government Center's Metrorail station for a rail line heading westward -- "a placeholder," he called the 100 feet or so still ready for track.
    I asked him why that east-west line was never built -- in fact, why there's been no major transit developments in the past 30 years, despite a ton of talk.
    He said: "It takes leadership."
     He added: "And you have to have a funding strategy."
     I wanted to ask more questions, but he said all this talk of Metrorail had gotten his heart racing, and he'd just had triple bypass surgery, so he asked to drop the subject.
The East-West "placeholder" at Government Center
Back to the east-west: That "placeholder" for an east-west line -- aiming at a straight shot toward the western suburbs -- never was part of any serious plan, because in the 1980s Metrorail ridership was one-tenth of what pols had projected, and no one dared talk of expansion.
    Starting in 1989, however, there began talk of an intermodal center at airport, connecting rail and bus lines and a rental car center -- so that tourists who flew into MIA would have an easy way of getting elsewhere.
    This Miami Intermodal Center was to become a central part of all future planning, starting with the 1990s discussion of an east-west of a South Beach-port-airport-FIU line.
    Pols liked the ideas. Voters didn't want to pay for it. In 1990, 54 percent voted to reject a penny sales tax for transit. n 1991, 69 percent voted against a penny transit tax.

    1995: "We Can No Longer Afford Highways"
    Still, in 1995, the Herald's Al Chardy reported, county leaders were getting behind the corridor. "We can no longer afford to build new highways," said Jose Mesa, staff director of the Metropolitan Planning Organization, echoing what today's politicians are saying 20 years later -- after billions more had been spent on new highways, overpasses and such.
    The 1995 MPO had a 20-year $3 billion plan that included a east-west rail line to be finished by 2015. The east-west line would include a "rail transfer station" at the airport -- the concept that  would become MIC.
    Miami Beach was still in the mix in 1995, but the city soon dropped out, with NIMBYs objecting to cluttering their island with a rail line, but talk of the port-FIU kept going seriously.   
    In 1996, Jose Abreu, the Florida Department of Transportation's district secretary for Dade, said that the east-west transit corridor and the MIC were part of "Dade's survival plan for congestion."
    One problem for the east-west was the downtown portion, because Overtown didn't want once again to be shattered by an elevated rail line, the way that I-95 and Metrorail had messed it up previously.
    The solution: In 1996, the MPO approved by a vote of 6-5 to build a $250 million tunnel for the east-west, running underground from the port to Government Center and under the Miami River, before rising above ground, and going to the Orange Bowl before angling northwest to the airport and MIC, then on some westward path to the Palmetto Expressway near the 836.
Maurice Ferre
Ferre was one of those who voted for the tunnel. He had also by this point led one of the campaigns to get a transit tax.
    By 1998, the feds had signed off on the MIC's environmental impact statement, Chardy reported, and the MIC  had become "the hub and centerpiece of the project" for the whole east-west project.
    The Clinton Adminstration's transportation people supported the project, but Miami-Dade had to show that it could shoulder some of the costs.

             Voters Reject Transit Tax for Fourth Time   
   In 1999, pols asked voters to add a penny to the sales tax in order to build 90 miles of Metrorail extensions, including the east-west and the north-south under a 20-year development plan. The east-west line would be finished by 2011.
    That was a problem. Ferre said that other areas, including black neighborhoods, didn't want an east-west line before they got their own rail lines. The northwest, for example, had been promised a North-South Metrorail extension from 79th Street running northward to the county line.
    Two-thirds of the voters said no to the new sales tax. 

               "We Don't Trust the Politicians"
``This was really a referendum on county government,'' FIU Professor  Dario Moreno told the Herald. " 'They said, `We see the need for transit, but we don't trust the politicians.' ''
    In 2002, Mayor Alex Penelas came back with a better idea: Promising 90 miles of rail, doubling the buses, free rides for seniors and Metromover -- all this for half the price of 1999, a half-penny, By this time, the east-west had expanded from downtown all the way west to FIU.  AND a fifth of that half-penny would go to local communities for better sidewalks and stop signs.
    The voters went for it. As now is well recorded (my take on it in the Biscayne Times is HERE), the money was used to make up operating deficits and accomplished virtually none of its promises (though I did get two stop signs for $1990 on my Miami Shores corner).
    The half-penny did build a 2.4-mile Metrorail extension to the airport -- solidifying the MIC as a necessary part of a future east-west corridor.
    Problem: Political forces could never agree on which transit  line should go first. Meanwhile, the MIC kept gaining traction -- with fed funding and state dollars (from administrations opposed to transit). 

    "No One Opposed MIC. It Was Under the Radar"
    "No one opposed the MIC," Ferre said. "In fact, most didn't understand it. It was kind of under the radar."
       Ferre, a former mayor of Miami, knows all this first hand because he's on the boards of the MPO, the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority and the Florida Transportation Commission.
    He keeps driving home a basic point: If local forces agree on a project, they can get funding. If they're divided, no state or federal money will be forthcoming.
    Meanwhile, the powerful MPO, which must approve all transportation projects in the county, kept talking about the need for mass transit -- while rubber-stamping highway expansions proposed by the state and Miami Dade Expressway to fund more highway widening. State and toll money paid for a $500 million-plus interchange for the 836-826, another $800 million was found to widen I-395 and create a "signature bridge" north of downtown, plus another $1 billion for a tunnel to the port (for trucks and cars, not the rail originally envisioned).
    Talking transit, approving highways -- that's what Ferre calls the "wink wink" of local transportation strategy.
    Back to the east-west: A decade ago -- in 2006 -- county transit leaders, hoping to find funds somewhere, made another bid for the east-west and north-south corridors.

CSX's map showing its line running due west to 137th Avenue, with a spur dipping south east of the Palmetto

    One issue for the east-west is where it went west of the MIC. One possibility was through Flagami -- along NW 7th Street to the Palmetto Expressway. The residents of Flagami rebelled against that.
    As Herald reporter Larry Lebowitz noted: "Big-ticket, high-profile projects like the proposed $1.3 billion Metrorail extension from the Miami Intermodal Center to Florida International University aren't built on paper. 

            "The Politics of Today Always Prevail"
    "No matter how hard they try to design a comprehensive transit system that will serve the Miami of 25, 50 or 100 years from now, the engineers, demographers and urban planners know that the politics of today will always prevail," Lebowitz wrote.
    Flagami residents "don't want the train noise - even if some of them already live directly under Miami International Airport's flight paths. They don't want the construction. They don't believe the government won't take their homes to make way for an elevated train."
    In October 2006 -- nearly a decade ago -- Commission Chair Joe Martinez promoted the CSX track west of the MIC by leading 150 dignitaries on a short train ride to show them how an east-west train could work.    
    Meanwhile, Lebowitz reported, FIU was taking a second look at rail. After originally saying it didn't want Metrorail messing up its campus, it said that going down 107th Avenue from the CSX line to the campus "creates a lot of interesting possibilities," Lebowitz reported.
    In 2008, the feds announced it wasn't funding Dade rail extension, including the $700 million that had been earmarked for the North-South Metrorail line, "a project long promised and long delayed for the heart of the black community," wrote Herald reporter Matt Pinzur. The reason: "Miami-Dade's poor management of transit budgets."
    Now, in 2016, everything is back on the table. Politicians are once again saying they can't solve traffic jams with wider highways. Six corridors are again in play. 

Gimenez map in 2016 for the east-west corridor
    For the east-west, the latest incarnation, presented by Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, has the east-west corridor running to the area of the Dolphin Mall, along 836 at about NW 12th Street, where there doesn't appear to be a lot of residential neighborhoods. At about 836 and the Florida Turnpike, Gimenez's plan shows a dotted line extending south toward FIU as a possible extension -- an extension addition that would not be on CSX tracks.
    To get from the Dolphin Mall to downtown Miami, travelers will have to switch at the MIC, take a northern route on Metrorail, then dip down to the city center.

                "For Some Crazy Reason,
               This Place Doesn't Learn"    
    Political and civil leaders were jubilant last month when the MPO unanimously voted to move forward on all six corridors -- for either rail or the best affordable technology -- though board members acknowledged it was highly unlikely that funding would be found for all corridors simultaneously.
Barbara Jordan
And while the vote was unanimous, Commissioner Barbara Jordan indicated that unanimity might not last long. "North comes first." Unless North was ranked first or second if two got funding, "I'm not on board with one."
    The latest county study projects far lower ridership for the North-South than the East-West or BayLink, setting up once again divisions in political thinking.
    "We're back to the same-o, same-o, " Ferre said. "For some crazy reason, this place doesn't learn."

Posted May 9, 2016.

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