A Bus Rider's Woes 

Reveal Huge Problems

By John Dorschner
    In the view of many civic leaders, Derek Merleaux is trying to do the right thing in this era of crushing traffic jams and cars spewing world-damaging carbon: He takes public transit.
Derek Merleaux
     The problem: He says Miami-Dade Transit is not doing the right thing by him -- or a lot of other people trying to get between the mainland and Miami Beach.
    "This is like the dark ages," Merleaux says of local transit, compared with other areas of the country.
    He cites lack of GPS for real-time tracking of buses, lack of dedicated lanes for buses on major routes and -- most importantly -- lack of buses.
       It looks like many riders are getting fed up.
Even as drivers complain of ever-worsening traffic jams, county bus ridership has dropped for each of the last 19 months, compared to the same month in the previous year. 

    Merleaux is a friend of mine, but he's far from alone in his gripes about county transit. (For a flavor of complaints, see @FixMetroMDT on Twitter.)
    Consider this: At 5 p.m., Merleaux walks out of his office at 10th and Washington on the Beach and tries to catch a 120 Beach Max to downtown Miami. The first bus roars by him -- jam packed, no room for more passengers. And then a second. And then a third.
    "This happens all the time," he says. He figures these delays can add about an hour to his commute.
      One afternoon, he estimated that 60 people were waiting on Washington trying to get a bus.
    It's so bad, he says, that private sight-seeing buses, empty at the end of their workdays, heading back to the mainland, scoop up the irate passengers at $2 per, because the county's transit system, financed by property and sales taxes, isn't taking care of their needs.
    Politicians rarely say anything about nuts-and-bolts bus service. They like to make big splashes by talking about new rail lines -- talk that has been going on for decades without results.
    Last year, County Mayor Carlos Gimenez and Beach Mayor Philip Levine endorsed finding a public-private partnership for Bay Link, a oft-proposed light rail line over the MacArthur Causeway. Commissioner Xavier Suarez recently did a television commercial promoting new rail lines stretching north, south, east and west.
    For this story, the mayor's office, Miami-Dade Transit and several county commissioners did not respond to requests for comment, but Commissioner Suarez and staff answered swiftly.
    "We have a dysfunctional system of public transportation, which is not particularly 'public' or particularly effective in transporting commuters, students, shoppers or visitors,"
Suarez said in an email.

                     Better than South Dixie

    Merleaux supports efforts to combat global warming, but
he confesses that his motives in taking public transit are "as much about the deep hatred I have of driving in Miami as much as I'm a green guy."
     He lives a short drive from the South Miami station for Metrorail, which on workday mornings he takes downtown to the Government Center.
     That's usually a much speedier trip than driving on gridlocked South Dixie. But then things slow down: He has an odd walk across a couple of streets to get to a bus stop -- noting that most cities have much better links between bus and rail.
    At the bus stop, he catches Route 120 -- the Beach MAX -- an express bus. It heads north to a major bus stop by the Omni, by which time it may already be so full that some people can't climb aboard. "That means those people are late for work."
A packed 120 Beach MAX headed to Miami Beach
    Then the 120, passengers crammed like sardines, heads across the MacArthur Causeway, where traffic crawls along. "They don't have a special lane for buses, like you would in any major city."
    On the Beach, the 120 swings north on Washington Avenue. Merleaux gets off about 10th Street, where he is a digital archivist at the Wolfsonian museum.
    The 120 has a long route, northward all the way to the Aventura Mall. On its southward swing in the afternoon, it is picking up workers all the way down -- "construction guys, hotel service workers" -- and by the time that it gets to South Beach, where Merleaux works, it's usually packed.
    If he leaves work five minutes early, at 4:55, and rushes several blocks northward, he might have a chance to squeeze on the next bus -- or maybe not. 

                        Drivers "Just Sail on By"
    If the 120 unloads passengers at his stop, he might squeeze on, but the crush of passengers is so severe that some bus drivers will halt a half-block before the bus stop, drop off a couple of passengers, then zoom past the crowd waiting to get on. "They just sail on by," says Merleaux.
     His average morning commute is an hour, 10 minutes, he estimates. The return, if he has trouble boarding a bus, can add an hour to his trip. His one-way costs: $2.25, plus 60 cents for a transfer ticket.
    By jumping on a private tourist bus, he almost doubles the cost of his commute, but he figure it's worth it.
    Javier Hernandez, an aide to Commissioner Suarez, notes that the 120 is part of an unusual concentration of ridership patterns: It's one of 12 routes that accounted for 43 percent of the traffic on the system's 93 routes in June. The 120 is the sixth busiest route in the county -- with 7,743 boardings in June.

                       Bus Ridership Dropping
    Merleaux has observed growing numbers trying to use the 120, but systemwide, bus woes appear to be causing people to abandon mass transit -- even at a time when many are complaining about ever-worsening traffic jams.
     Every month in fiscal 2014-15 has seen a drop in Dade bus ridership compared to the previous year. Seven of the first 10 months of this fiscal year have shown decreases from 2011 -- a severe downward trend.
    The 120's woes are far from the only problem, says Merleaux. Much of the bus fleet is in bad repair. He once heard a bus driver complain that he was on his third bus of the day because of breakdowns. 
   Buses' timing can also be wretched; he once saw several 120s "nose-to-tail" on Washington Avenue, when they should have been 12 minutes apart.
    What's more, Merleaux notes that Dade Transit's GPS system has been stuck in a minor pilot program -- while most of the major transit systems in the country have been using GPS for years -- a huge convenience for travelers. In Chicago, for example, a free app will note in real time the next arrival of practically any bus or rail.
      Bus problems pop up in many places. Joanne Padron, Suarez's executive aide, said she takes the train/bus daily and has "my share of difficulties and frustration with the 56 route," in South Dade. On Tuesday morning, she wrote in an email, "my bus driver didn't see me waiting along the road due to the darkness and trees. So I had to take the following bus and ended up being an hour late." 

          Riders Promised More Buses, But ...
     Merleaux wants to know how the system got into such a mess. So do a lot of people.
       In 2002, politicians promised, among other things, that the bus fleet would double from 800 to 1600 buses if voters passed a half-penny sales tax for transit. The tax passed overwhelmingly.
       According to the county's website, the total fleet was 815 buses as of February, down from a peak of 1,033 in 2007. Average age of the remaining buses: 10.62 years. 
      A planning report says the county expects to increase the number of buses to 1,033 by 2020, but it's failed to meet such goals in the past.
      "So what's happened?" Merleaux asks. "Where's the accountability?"


  1. Well done piece....There is no accountability because there is no vision and also because the entrenched bureaucracy spends its efforts justifying their own salaries and positions. I will invite you to visit our Grove office and see what I would like to see happening in mass transportation in Miami-Dade....The Herald editorial dated July 1, 2015 encapsulates it....and I should add that the CITT will be meeting on October 21 to "unwind unification" and recover all PTP funds from the county, meaning an extra $100 million for capital improvements to the system....

    1. Thank you ... could you send specifics to my email?

  2. Peter L. Forrest, a board member of the Citizens' Independent Transit Trust, which oversees how the half-penny transit sales tax is used, asked the blog to post his comment to the above article:
    "Derek's complaint is a common one from new residents who locate in the suburbs and use transit. Miami has come a long way from 1959 when there were four transit systems and it was impossible to transfer among them. 'Dark ages'? Not at all when you consider we have had direct funding for infrastructure only since the surtax was approved in 2002. Except for the Orange Line, most of it has gone for replacement vehicles which are coming on line. As for being passed by the 120, the bus operator is making a rational decision when he does so. Where would he put the new passengers, on the roof?
    "Derek has options. He could move closer to his worksite or opt for the C or S buses which are slower but follow the same route as the 120. He could also attend the budget hearings and advocate for an increased tax millage to more adequately fund Transit and Public Works...(good luck on that).
    "We get what we pay for and a half-cent surtax isn't much to provide the infrastructure of a modern transit system in a short time compared to other cities that have built their systems over many years.
    "My views of course are biased as a member of the CITT. I am however a rider of 4-6 buses daily and well aware of their deficiencies."

  3. Peter's dismissive response is not encouraging coming from someone who is tasked with overseeing that our tax dollars are being spent for what they were supposed to be spent for: capital improvements for rapid transit. We aren't asking that a word class system appear instantaneously, but we do expect that progress will be made toward it. CITT has not set a great example. So much of the half-penny tax goes to roads, stormwater, municipalities and non-capital operating expenses it becomes frustrating when again and again we hear how little money is available. It's as though the last thing on the list of priorities was the first thing on the ballot language.