We must link 28 disconnected, mostly-free transit systems
Written by Michael Lewis on February 2, 2016
Metropolitan mass transit is hard enough to stitch together when it all reports to a single agency. Imagine how hard it must be when 28 governments each do their own thing.
Believe it or not, that’s true in Miami-Dade: 28 local governments run mass transit, yet absolutely no structure binds them together. We rely on informal coordination.
At the same time, while 83% of our transit users take fare-paying systems, 17% ride modes that charge not a penny. More than that, many who take the paid-fare systems ride either free or at heavy discount under special dispensations.
Around the nation, mass transit rarely supports itself even when it charges a fare. But if one-sixth of all riders are on free transit and many others pay little or nothing, money to prop up operations and expansions becomes far scarcer.
As rapidly clogging traffic in Miami-Dade creates longer and less predictable drive times, and as support for transit of varying modes grows, the lack of political will to collect legitimate fares that are plowed back in weakens transit’s ability to meet our needs.
These two flaws – lack of system coordination and bypassing legitimate farebox aid – undercut the two major needs of transit: connectivity over a broad community and sustainability over a long period.
Back in 2002, funding was to flow from a half-percent sales tax that county voters passed to build transit lines. To pass the tax, however, commissioners agreed to give 31 cities a combined 20% of collections. In turn, 20% to 80% of that municipal share may be used for transit projects.
While the county initially misspent the 80% of the tax that it retained by propping up existing transit rather than adding to the system, the same was not true among municipalities, most of which chose to create circulators that we often call trolleys, although they are really small buses.
Today, 27 of the 34 municipalities spend much of their share of the surtax on those circulators. Together with the county’s Metromover, Metrorail and buses, that makes 28 separate transit systems in Miami-Dade.
As a report Mayor Carlos Gimenez wrote last week makes clear, those systems are not required to work together, to link together or to coordinate for the betterment of the riding public.
While county transit tries to work with the municipalities, he wrote, “each municipality operates independently and has its own individual transportation goals and objectives.”
For that reason, he told commissioners, the county transit operation – which last year accounted for 91.2% of all transit rides – can’t plan when or where any city might run a trolley route near county buses routes, nor can it tell when or where a link between the county and a municipal system might be possible. As it happens, at least eight of those systems now link with the county’s, but it’s strictly informal.
What a way to run a railroad – much less a transit system.
Mayor Gimenez did say that county transit will in the future keep in touch with city systems and suggest route changes, but nobody is in charge. It’s all by goodwill.
In fact, the county is getting into the local circulator business itself, with one now in Westchester and another under study in West Dade.
Meanwhile, all the municipal systems have to figure out how to stay in business when most of them charge no fares – though Cutler Bay, for example, charges 25 cents a ride and Hialeah matches the county’s fare schedule.
Last Thursday, as Miami Manager Daniel Alfonso pledged that the city’s trolley system will add three new routes by March 1, commissioners again touched on their free system’s long-term viability – though they never mentioned charging to ride. Miami started its system with federal grants that probably won’t be repeated as trolleys must be replaced. Where will the money come from?
Our municipal systems are not insignificant. In fiscal 2014 they handled a combined 8.3 million rides, Mayor Gimenez wrote, and in 2015 the number was expected to exceed 10 million, a growth of more than 20% in one year, gaining at a far faster pace than the county bus system is losing riders.
There is a transportation planning coordinator for the county, the Metropolitan Planning Organization, which so far has not tried to figure out how to stitch the county and municipal transit operations together. But that is about to change.
The planning organization, Mayor Gimenez wrote, is preparing a study to coordinate all 28 systems.
It couldn’t happen too soon.
Nor could a resolve to fund all transit partly from the farebox.
A transit fare is fair – and vital.