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Transit Troubles and Solutions

It’s no secret that Miami commuters are frustrated with gridlock, careless drivers and high tolls. But there are few options for drivers to get around the county without using their car. More government leaders are starting to wake up to the need for transportation solutions beyond building more roads and charging higher tolls. So what’s the next step?

Recent developments may bring changes that could give commuters more options.

The Miami-Dade Metropolitan Planning Organization, the agency tasked with coordinating transportation infrastructure among the dozens of cities and agencies in the county, has often been criticized for having an unwieldy board of 23 and lacking a coherent vision.

Attempts at reworking the governing board itself would require action from the Florida Legislature, a body that has recently struggled to carry out such basic duties as drafting a budget and drawing legal congressional districts. So the board has taken to finding internal solutions to its procedural problems, forming a new seven member Transportation Solutions Committee (TSC) that Vice Chair and City of Miami Commissioner Francis Suarez hopes will result in a more nimble body, stripped of parochialism and ego, that can come up with a cogent vision for an integrated regional transit system.

 

“Before, the tail was wagging the dog,” Suarez said, lamenting the rapid rubber stamping of projects by the MPO.

The committee heard comments last week from several residents, with one resident pleading for a Metrorail expansion that would include Northeast Miami-Dade and another calling for an increase to the gas tax to help pay for transit improvements.

Malcom Mouse, Jr., a Miami Gardens resident and planning student at FAU who called for more regional thinking and balanced transit solutions (as well as foresight), admitted that expanding Metrorail across the county would be prohibitively expensive.

Mouse’s comments were echoed by county commissioner and TSC Chairman Dennis Moss. “It would be wonderful to be able to expand Metrorail all over the county,” Moss said, “but realistically we know that right now the funding to do that is not available.”

Still, the MPO is pursuing rail solutions to some of the county’s transportation problems, if not on the scale of Metrorail extensions.

Residents have long sought better transit connections between Miami and Miami Beach, something besides the packed buses that cross the bay, and a plan called BayLink — the details of which have yet to be worked out — could provide an effective solution. At the heart of BayLink would be a light rail system, essentially modern electric streetcars, running on the MacArthur Causeway. The route would likely start Downtown, cross the bay, and enter South Beach, then head north along Washington Avenue to the Miami Beach Convention Center. Total estimates for the projects run upwards of $500 million, with more than $500 million on top of that for future extensions. There are currently no firm plans for how to pay for BayLink, and the proposed idea of tolling the MacArthur and Julia Tuttle causeways has been to pay for it has been rejected. The Miami Herald’s Doug Hanks reported in May that officials are unlikely to pursue federal funding for BayLink, and the MPO’s BayLink committee has put a hold on an environmental impact study that would be needed to garner federal dollars in the future. BayLink may end up a “private-public affair,” with a proposal in place to spend between $36 million and $54 million a year in government funding to partner with a private company that would build and operate the system.

 

 

Other cross bay connection ideas that have been floated include ferries and water taxies, though Suarez said he has concerns about extra boat traffic affecting shallow Biscayne Bay’s aquatic life, especially critically endangered manatees.

Ongoing transit challenges include finding ways to connect Downtown with the sprawling, and still growing, southern portions of the county. Metrorail only runs south to Dadeland Mall, continued by a dedicated busway along US-1 that has to contend with traffic lights and cross traffic. Short term solutions include better traffic signals that respond to oncoming buses, as well as higher capacity buses that the county is in the process of purchasing and putting on the road. However, those who hold out hope for a Metrorail extension further south may find solace in the fact that the county already controls the right of way along the busway, so the cost of expanding Metrorail would be much lower — and members of the MPO therefore might be more inclined to approve it.

Among the biggest proponents of Metrorail on the MPO board is County Commissioner and TSC member Bruno Barreiro.“I think long term, it’s the way to invest,” Barreiro said. “I believe it costs more, yes. But I also believe that we have to build it where there’s the path of least resistance, the path where we have the right of way. Obviously, going down south to Florida city, it’s a natural. We have the right of way there. It should have been done.”

Metromover

Without the money for trains and streetcars, more affordable options include Bus Rapid Transit, or using large buses with extended hours and a dedicated right of way.

Of course, the biggest challenge faced by transit planners is finding funding for projects, especially because of the lack of federal funding in recent years. When Miami-Dade voters approved a half-cent sales tax in 2002, many of the ambitious plans assumed a high level of sustained federal funding that has since evaporated.

“The federal approach to transportation and appropriating money for infrastructure has changed dramatically over the last decade,” Charles Scurr, executive director of the Citizens’ Independent Transportation Trust, told the TSC last week.

Despite calls for aggressive transportation infrastructure investment by the Obama administration, Congress has struggled to keep the highway trust fund (which also pays for mass transit projects) solvent, passing only temporary patches over the last several years. The most recent patchwork funding extension is due to expire July 31.

Projects that are most likely to see work in the near future include Tri-Rail sharing All Aboard Florida’s downtown station — though the final funding package remains uncertain as Tri-Rail pursues millions of dollars from local Community Redevelopment Agencies — and an express bus service on the 836 due to be completed in 2019. Also in the works are plans to improve I-395, including a adding “visually appealing bridge” downtown.

Some transit solutions wouldn’t even require building more transit lines. As Suarez was eager to point out, one way to curry favor with outside funding agencies is to increase ridership by zoning more dense areas around transit corridors that would also be paired with fewer parking requirements, a strategy often known as transit oriented development.

At the county level, Miami-Dade Transit has seen a shakeup in leadership this week, with former director Ysela Llort retiring, and City of Miami assistant city manager Alice Bravo taking over what may soon become the Miami-Dade Department of Transportation. Bravo said she took a lead role for the city in the planning for I-95 Express.

Whatever the final solutions, local transit leaders have heard the cries of residents calling for more options. “We need a fully integrated system,” Suarez said at the most recent TSC meeting. “We need a system where you can get from one part of the county to the other part of the county.”

County Commissioner and TSC member Jose “Pepe” Diaz summed up the problems and demands: “Nobody wants their taxes raised, nobody wants to pay more tolls, yet everybody wants a train to pick them up on the corner of their house, and that’s the truth.”

However, Diaz also used a familiar refrain of transit advocates to explain how the MPO needs to start thinking: “We have to move people, not cars.”

What projects do you most want to see the MPO and local transit leaders start working on?