Key Transit Questions Unanswered

By John Dorschner

Major revision 4 p.m. April 25.
      While county leaders were ecstatic last week after agreeing to move forward simultaneously on developing 12 rapid transit corridors,
the politicians achieved unanimity in transit by avoiding the hard questions of what corridors should go first and how to pay for them.
      An earlier version of this story stated that the transit department had not revealed key information to the Metropolitan Planning Organization before it voted on Thursday to advance the SMART (Strategic Miami Area Rapid Transit) Plan.
       In fact, the mayor and Transit Director Alice Bravo didn't mention key figures in their talks to the MPO, but the accompanying written report and slide presentation did show that there are vast disparities in how much the routes are currently used and the associated costs. 
        * Beach Corridor -- 12,000 weekday boardings daily. Capital cost $612 million, annual operating and maintenance costs $24 million.
         * East-West Corridor -- 27,000 weekday boardings a day. $843 million cost light rail, uncertain costs commuter rail. O&M $10 million - $13 million.
         * Kendall Corridor -- 4,000 weekday boardings. $130 million bus rapid transit, $800 million light rail. O&M: $10-$13 million
         * North  Corridor (along NW 27th Avenue) -- 7,300 boardings, $137 million bus rapid transit, $1 billion light rail. O&M $11-13 million.
         * Northeast Corridor (close to Biscayne Boulevard) -- 12,000 boardings, $335 million, O&M $31 million.
          * South Corridor -- 15,000 daily boardings, $1.2 billion light rail, O&M $25 million.
         Politicians in both the South and North corridors have insisted that they want light rail, not dedicated bus lines -- huge expenses. What's more, the Kendall and North have considerably less ridership at the moment, although that could change, of course.
     The problem is that political leaders, led by Commissioner Dennis Moss, head of the MPO's transit solutions committee, maintain that all of the six main corridors must be given the highest priority.
Dennis Moss

      "We need to move forward together," Moss told his MPO committee on Wednesday.
The mayor responded that a "unified vision" was needed. "We're all in this together. No area can be left behind."
      On Thursday, before the full MPO board, Gimenez said that if the board didn't move on the six corridors at the same time, "it will become a food fight," with each commissioner demanding his/her area come first.
      In fact, as all Dade's political leaders know, there is no funding -- federal, state, local -- for even a single corridor at the moment.
     On Thursday, Commissioners Esteban Bovo and Rebeca Sosa pointed out it was highly unlikely that more than one would be funded at any one time.
     On Wednesday, Alice Bravo, the transit director, told the MPO Transit Solutions Committee that leaders at the Federal Transit Administration had communicated to her that they didn't think any local agency could move on six corridors at once. She said two might be do-able.
Alice Bravo

           The MPO voted unanimously also to move forward on six corridors for a BERT (Bus Rapid Transit Network): Flagler; South Miami-Dade Express (Turnpike/SR 874/SR 878 to Dadeland North Metrorail Station); NW Miami-Dade Express (I-75 Miami Gardrens Drive to Palmetto Metrorail Station); SW Dade Express (from Miami Executive Airport to Dadeland North); Florida Turnpike Express (South Dade to Doral) and Beach Express North.

                Background: Different Take in January

    Let's back up a bit: In January, Mayor Gimenez told me that he was working on a comprehensive transit plan, but his priorities were BayLink and the Kendall corridor. (That was for an article in Biscayne Times, available HERE.)
Carlos Gimenez
Mayoral spokesman Michael Hernandez said that the comprehensive plan would be unveiled at the end of January. Then it was the end of February. And then he said the end of March.
       In early March, Bravo told a standing-room only crowd of transit and affordable housing enthusiasts: "There's going to be a big debate in the next few months on which corridor comes next." 

      That quote appears in a story HERE. (Scroll toward bottom to see Bravo's comment.)
       Last week, Mayor Gimenez, facing re-election, side-stepped all the hard numbers and the debate and recommended six main corridors all be priority one.
         Francis Suarez, a city of Miami commissioner and MPO Vice Chair, labeled the concept the SMART Plan. The MPO transit solutions committee unanimously approved SMART and the next day the full board approved it, also unanimously.

    Not a single member of the transit-riding public commented at the meetings, but the politicians gushed praise. "A watershed moment in Miami-Dade County" because the MPO had expressed a "vision ... speaking in one voice," Commissioner Moss said.
"A dream come true," said Peggy Bell, mayor of Cutler Bay, praising the board for being "so unified."

      Jean Monestime, chair of the commission, told Gimenez: "I applaud you for this great show of leadership."          
             "Two Fundamental Problems" 

       Less impressed was Bovo, who showed his MPO colleagues a tall stack of previous studies on corridors -- studies that had gone nowhere. He acknowledged it was "politically correct to go after all of them at the same time," but that was likely to result in nothing getting done. "I'm willing to bet a dollar that none of us will be in office when one of these gets built."
      Bovo named two "fundamental problems":
      "How are we going to pay?"
      "We need to build one thing" to re-establish voter trust because "the residents in Miami-Dade County have zero confidence in us."
"I'm warning you. we're going to have come to a moment when we have to pick a corridor," Bovo said. "I don't want to be a participant in passing on these issues to our children and grandchildren."
       Mayor Gimenez acknowledged that not all six were going to be funded at the same time, but by moving ahead on all six for planning, design and engineering studies, the fundamentals could be in place when funding was available.
       Commission Sosa said she supported the SMART plan, but then added that it wasn't yet realistic. "This is something that can become realistic if we really make the necessary decisions to make it a reality.
      "We can't tell the community that we're going to have one, two, three, four, five corridors," Sosa said, adding an analysis was needed on which should come first.
Barbara Jordan
Commissioner Barbara Jordan -- whose black constituents have voted overwhelmingly for mass transit funding and then seen their neighborhoods given second-rate transit service-- said she was "very excited" because the mayor was according the six main corridors equal treatment.
      "For the first time, I heard a politician say 'I'm willing to stand behind the plan and this community' and go to the voters if necessary to get the resources to get this done," Jordan added.
      But Jordan added, in an unveiled threat, if the county pushed ahead with one corridor: "North comes first. Unless North comes first, I'm not on board with one."

       UPDATE: In fact, though the mayor did not emphasize it during his oral presentations, the North Corridor's ridership figures are considerably less than all but one other corridor, and the area's demand for light rail, not bus lanes, makes it an expensive expansion.
       On Saturday, after the voting, Francis Suarez, who is also president of the Miami-Dade County League of Cities, said in an interview that the SMART Plan was a "huge deal," because the MPO -- the primary local entity for transportation planning -- was officially acknowledging for the first time that mass transit was the key to the future.   
Francis Suarez
"In the past, FDOT [Florida Department of Transportation] came to MPO with plans to build more roads and widen highways, and we rubber-stamped them."
      After the disastrous experience with the half-penny sales tax, which has been largely spent on funding operations and maintenance rather than rail expansion as intended, "we have to hit the reset button," coming up with a "coherent plan" that everyone could get behind, Suarez said.
     While acknowledging much must still be done, Suarez said the MPO must start somewhere. "How do you eat an elephant?"
      Gimenez had put it slightly differently to the MPO: "A journey of a thousand miles starts with a first step and we as a community have not been willing to take that first step."

                              What about BayLink?

      One issue left hanging: BayLink appears to be in the lead toward seeking funding. Miami Beach is already working on trying to fund its part of the rail line.
      In February, an MPO executive committee (that included Gimenez and the mayors of Miami and Miami Beach) urged that the cities and the county pass a memorandum of understanding to get the process under way to ask for federal funding for BayLink. That story is HERE.
     Aileen Boucle, the MPO's executive director, said she hoped the cities and county could quickly approve the MOU so that the MPO could consider it in March.
    The county commission has kept postponing the BayLink MOU, and it's unclear whether some commissioners might feel that passing it would put BayLink ahead of the other corridors in seeking funding.
     On Wednesday, after Gimenez made his presentation to the MPO committee, I asked him if the county was moving as fast as possible to expand transit, he hesitated just a split second, then said:

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