Rail cuts put SMART transit plan into the DUMB column
Written by Michael Lewis on May 30, 2017
As Miami-Dade strives to add six transit legs in a so-called SMART plan, it’s a DUMB move to cut service on its newest rail line, the one that carries airport passengers.
The county last week cut weekend Orange Line runs in half less than five years after it opened the half-billion-dollar, 2.4-mile link to Miami International Airport – our only significant gain from a 15-year-old transit sales tax.
At the same time, the system reduced late-night and early-morning hours of Metrorail and Metromover, saying those times are least utilized and “keeping the system open late has become cost prohibitive because of the low demand during those hours.” Then the county tacked on added bus hours in partial compensation.
We know that rail and mover usage was low from 5 a.m. to 6 a.m. and midnight to 2 a.m. weekends and 11 p.m. to midnight weekdays. In fact, if the system is being run to break even, the only solution is to shut the whole thing down right now.
But while it might have been smart fiscally to cut hours on the whole system and to reduce Orange Line frequency to every 30 minutes weekends instead of every 15 to save money, it’s not smart when the county is trying to sell us on adding six more transit legs in the SMART plan that would be mostly rail.
That’s why we call this move the DUMB plan – meaning Don’t Undercut Mobility’s Backing.
Why in heaven’s name would we want to add more rail when the county has cut service on what it says is “considered the centerpiece of the People’s Transportation Plan” that we’re still paying for?
Yes, in the county’s most current report Metrorail use fell 8.1% in the 12 months ended in February. But Miami International Airport boardings on the Orange Line fell only 7% – in other words, the airport stop performs better than the system as a whole, it’s our long-sought pledge to air passengers, it’s our newest service and the most expensive per mile, yet we cut early and late hours and halved weekend service?
For the year, Orange Line weekend service fell 3.8%, far less than the system as a whole. That line serves our airport. Of all the service to cut most drastically, that isn’t SMART if you’re telling us at the same time that we need to fund much more rail that we then cannot afford to operate fully either.
In February 1,417 people boarded Metrorail at the airport on an average Saturday, and probably about the same number got off there – 2,834 users in all. Sunday numbers were almost identical.
Those totals are larger than at 16 other stations on the 23-station system on a typical Saturday. Cut operations in half weekends and many air travelers will find the system nearly useless. That includes millions of cruise passengers who predominantly board and leave ships on weekends and come here by air.
The aim ought to be to develop the mass transit habit. That would get cars off roads. Instead, we’re making rail service less frequent. In New York, where subways are king, service runs 24/7 all the time. Sure, we’re not Manhattan, but if we can’t run what we have now as conveniently as possible, why should taxpayers expect full operation from new lines that also are going to lose money?
Transit use is only going to become more difficult when planned bus system cuts arrive in November. The cuts are fiscally sound – on some routes, it’s cheaper to call Uber for every rider at county expense that keep going. But again, it’s far harder to rely on transit that doesn’t run as often or go as many places.
We have only a few tools to build transit use: speed, comfort, convenience, connectivity, maximum operating hours, maximum area coverage and the image that transit is for everybody. Reduced operating hours cut into convenience and look like we’re throwing in the towel on transit.
If you’re going to train Miamians to ride the train, it’s got to be there when we want it. If there’s no late-night Metromover or Metrorail, we must ride the roads. That’s bad rail transit training.
It may be smart to save transit costs, but that’s short-term thinking if we believe that lack of revenue might also limit SMART lines’ operations. The more transit we build, the more losses the county must fund. Where will that money come from, and why don’t we tap it now to keep what rail we have as functional as possible?
Bottom line: without consistent and reliable funding of losses, transit will never replace sitting fuming in traffic in your private car.
We favor the SMART plan’s very useful transit legs, but only after the county can prove to the public that it can fund consistent and frequent operations as well as construction. Otherwise, forget about it and save the billions to build.