Your view: Miami’s transit troubles go way back

Elsa Roberts is a local transit advocate and a member of Emerge Miami. 

If you take a look at the history of public transit in Miami, it’s not hard to understand why we’re still a car-centric city today.

The system got its start in the 1960s, with the Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964 and a 1968 report and that began to pave the way for a new bout of mass transit in cities. A bevy of research and federal grants began bringing cities on board in earnest in the 1970s.

Miami was one of three cities to get federal funding for a peoplemover, which was introduced as a concept in the 1960s. That became today’s Metromover, which carries riders in a loop around Brickell and Downtown for free. Daily ridership was projected to reach 43,000 by 2000, but that never materialized, peaking at 32,800 in 2013.

The Metrorail also kicked off in the 1970s, when Miami’s population was booming. Residents were on board: they resisted the idea of expanding the freeway system, instead pushing for mass transit. Public discussions began in 1971, and, by 1986, all the stops on today’s Metrorail green line were open, except for the TriRail station, which opened in 1989. 

But the funding didn’t keep up. Voters declined tax increases to give the system more funding four times, until 2002, when they approved the ½ cent tax. By then Miami-Dade Transit (MDT) was running an annual deficit of more than $20 million.

With the ½ cent tax, voters were promised up to 88.9 new miles of Metrorail, 17 million miles of additional bus service, a doubling of the number of buses, free metromover service, free metrorail for seniors, and a bevvy of other items.

That was impossible to deliver on given the financial state of the MDT.

By 2008, no additional lines of Metrorail had been built and the MDT was still running a $20 million deficit annually. Although bus service had been expanded and additional bus lines added, they were short of the promised 64 percent increase. Instead, the Miami Herald reported in a 2008 exposé that “it peaked at 44 percent in December 2005” and had been cut several more times at that point.

As of today we have added 2.4 miles of rail forming the Orange Line to the airport, which opened in 2012, and not much else.

More than half of the money raised with that ½ cent tax went to routine expenses and maintenance and the hiring of more than 1,000 new employees. The temporary addition of 24-hour Metrorail service disappeared because the funding ran out and plans for additional lines were put on hold indefinitely.

The Miami Herald exposé also revealed the creation of a number of new bus lines, many of them with no basis in demand and serving only a few passengers a day. (They’ve since been scrapped.)

Let’s take a look at the Metrorail cars as well. The cars were purchased in 1983 and the county agreed to overhaul them in 15 years, but that didn’t happen. The federal government mandated an overhaul in 1999; by 2008, when the Herald exposé ran, the cars still hadn’t been renovated, despite $9 million in consulting fees to resolve the issue.

By then the renovations were so overdue that they were equivalent to the cost of buying new ones. “We didn’t properly maintain those cars for 20 years, ­that’s the truth of the matter,” then-Assistant Rail Director Richard Snedden told the Herald.

Many contracts later, the first test car car is expected this year. However, the timeline for new cars being placed into operation was pushed from 2016 to 2017 and now to mid-2019. The company hired to design and build the new cars, AnsaldoBreda, has been in the news several times over faulty cars and their inability to deliver in a timely fashion (amongst other issues).

So where does that leave us today?

Research indicates that a majority of the growing millennial workforce values alternative transit options and walkability. Bad traffic impedes economic growth. Miami commuters spend about 54 hours a year in traffic — well above the 30-hour point when time lost to congestion begins to have negative effects on a city’s growth.  

However, we’ve seen some encouraging new developments the last few months. Alice Bravo, the new director of Miami-Dade County Department of Transportation (formerly Miami-Dade Transit), has shown interest in supporting robust public transit in Miami. In June she told the Miami New Times that she wants to make Miami a car-optional city.

The new Metrorail cars are on track (no pun intended) to be running by 2019. A test drive of express cars, departing from Dadeland South and Palmetto Stations and stopping at only select stations, was so successful that the county plans to continue offering that service for the foreseeable future. And in November, WLRN reported the arrival on Miami’s streets of a fleet of 43 fancy new buses, complete with trackers.

But managing and maintaining our funds has been a chronic issue. Moving forward, we need citizens to educate themselves on transit issues and pay attention to the decisions made at the county and city level, to become watchdogs to prevent the kind of funding issues we’ve seen in the past. Transit isn’t just in the hands of our local government, it is in our hands as residents.

Join us tonight for Brickell Happy Hour to discuss the future of transit and Brickell.
Share your solutions for Miami transit on social media using the hashtag #solveMIAtransit.

Your View is a recurring series of opinion pieces from members of The New Tropic community. To share your ideas, goals, and work about Miami with the community in a Your View piece, please submit it here.