Today at 2:00pm, the county commission’s Transportation and Aviation Committee will have a The county commission’s Transportation and Aviation Committee has deferred a hearing on a proposal to remove free fare service from the Metromover. We looked into some of the key questions, and the arguments for and against the change.
What’s the proposal?
The proposal does not actually impose a fare for Metromover; rather, it eliminates the policy of free Metromover service, currently part of the county ordinance governing how it spends money from the transportation surtax. The commission would have to separately implement a fare. (Super straightforward, we know.)
What are the numbers?
A memo to commissioners from Deputy Mayor Alina Hudak says it would cost between $2.4 and $9 million to install fare collection equipment, plus an average $525,000 per year to operate and collect the fares. Assuming a $1 fare, it would generate between $1.8 and $2.7 million each year, “depending upon the ultimate elasticity in ridership.”
Has Metromover always been free?
When Metromover launched in 1986 (with many fewer stops than it has today), it cost 25 cents. That fare remained the same until 2002, when voters approved a half-penny sales tax to fund the “People’s Transportation Plan,” which ambitiously proposed to expand Metrorail and bus service (most of those funds ended up being spent on transit maintenance and operation; commissioners said this year they had “overpromised” to voters). Free Metromover service was one of the benefits funded by the surtax. Commissioners Sally Heyman and Barbara Jordan, who are sponsoring the current proposal, have supported ending free service before.
This chart shows total Metromover ridership for the month of October, as an example of how ridership has changed through the years. The 2002 total is extrapolated from average ridership figures because of a change in reporting that omitted the total figure from the source documents.
Source: Miami-Dade County ridership technical reports
What do our commissioners and public officials say?
Commissioners Monestime, Bovo, and Moss (three of the four transportation committee members) did not respond to multiple requests for comment on their position on the proposal. Commissioner Barreiro (the fourth) is on travel and will not be present for the hearing. In an e-mailed statement, Miami-Dade Transit said, helpfully, “The Board of County Commissioners sets County policy. Miami-Dade Transit implements the policy set forth by the Board. The Department is not taking a position on the potential re-institution of a fare for the Metromover system.”
What are the arguments for charging a fare?
The first argument is revenue. Right now, county taxpayers subsidize the Metromover through their half-penny sales tax—but other public transit, including Metrorail and buses, cost money. Because Metromover serves some of Miami’s more affluent zip codes, some say this arrangement is unfair. If the county implemented a fare system that collected more money than it costs to operate, those funds could be used for transit improvements.
“I would only support the increase if those fares were going directly into expanding service. Not maintenance, not debt, but expanding service. And I’m not seeing that kind of commitment,” says Marta Viciedo, a longtime transit advocate who now runs TrAC, a local transit political action committee. “[We need] a prioritization of mobility options over prioritizing road improvements and moving cars. Something that has a beginning, middle and end. That has a vision.”
Research has found that charging a fare can decrease problems with vagrants and “hooliganism” on transit systems, creating a better experience for paying riders—but in the process limiting access only to those who can afford to pay the fare.
What are the arguments against charging a fare?
Ridership would almost certainly go down. “It seems to be the case when you go from zero fare to any fare, ridership will be substantially and quickly impacted, perhaps by 40 percent or more. That’s what happened in other instances around the country,” says Joel Volinski, Director of the National Center for Transit Research at the University of South Florida
In Miami, there would probably be a smaller ridership drop, because there’s an existing fare collection system (EASY card) on MetroRail and buses that is familiar to most riders. Volinski says that makes a big difference. “My estimate off the top of my head is that ridership might be going down 15 or 20 percent.”
One study of free transit systems found they enjoyed greater ridership, higher customer satisfaction, and long-term benefits like economic development and stronger community social ties. Some systems had considered adopting a small surcharge, but found the cost of implementing such a system would nearly exceed the potential revenue. But, the study focused on small cities, college towns and resort areas.
Major cities of Miami’s size have a more mixed record with free transit schemes. One study found they experienced vandalism, school truancy (Miami had this issue, too, when Metromover first launched) and other issues. Many cities have settled on partially-free systems, giving free rides to seniors (as Miami does), students and other groups, or at particular times of day. It is clear, though, that free transit helps boost ridership in growing metropolitan areas. Jacksonville’s Skyway peoplemover, which had struggled with ridership under a 50-cent fare, made the system temporarily free in 2012 and saw ridership jump more than 60 percent.
“You could make the argument Miami wouldn’t have become what it’s become unless people back in the ’80s made the investment on MetroMover to make it possible to move around without being stuck in traffic all day long,” said Volinski. “There aren’t a lot of systems of that nature in this country. Nothing happens until people move, and for people to be able to move without paying for it is a nice thing.”
Corrections: A previous version of this article indicated that transit fares went to the county’s general fund. Transit fares are budgeted to and remain with Miami-Dade Transit, not the general fund.