How to close the continental divide in county’s transit plans
Written by Michael Lewis on August 8, 2017
The chairman of the Miami-Dade County Commission says his bold, far-ranging plan for six new mass transit corridors is not really at odds with the mayor’s aim to focus for now mostly on a new style of bus service.
Chairman Esteban Bovo Jr. offers a complex and visionary program that aims at mostly new rail service as a way of spreading major mass transit across the county, while Mayor Carlos Giménez says what’s do-able with the funds available is mostly a bus rapid transit service.
But Mr. Bovo seeks to dispel the perception that the issue has split the two far apart. Mr. Bovo says they are in full agreement on the need for six new transit corridors. The only divergences, he told Miami Today last week, are on how much money is available for the plan, what modes of transit to use in each corridor, how to fund the operations and maintenance of the new transit, and what steps to take next.
Forgive us if we see those four divergences not as a minor split but as a continental divide. Considering that everyone involved has already signed off on the basics of the six proposed corridors, the only real issues remaining are available funds, transit modes, funding of operations and maintenance, and what to do now.
After all, what else could cool-headed, thoughtful and respected county leaders diverge on?
The good news is that they have to agree on only one thing: what do we do next? The rest is going to take care of itself.
Let’s explain that.
The mayor says that for $534 million the county can get moving on all six transit corridors now, with rail on the Northeast corridor where tracks already exist and buses on the others. While Mr. Bovo says the bus plan “does not make my feet tingle,” he can live with it as a first step, “a crawl before you can walk bus service.” The mayor too says buses are just a step for now, as other technology makes progress.
So neither of them sees dedicated busways with fast-traveling buses as a long-term solution but both acknowledge them as a first step, and the money is there to take that step. So, take it – just don’t stop there. While new buses are relieving some traffic congestion we should be building toward the future.
This “temporary” bus solution is no waste. One of the largest costs in the $534 million plan is to acquire right-of-way on the north end of a transit link from Florida City on the south to the county line on the north. That right-of-way could be the basis for a future transit mode north, be it Mr. Bovo’s rail or Mr. Giménez’s bright new technology of the future. Either way, the land would be in county hands when needed.
And the buses? It’s nearly certain that some bus rapid transit would still be needed in Miami-Dade until the new buses reach the end of their useful lives, even if another transit mode – rail or autonomous vehicles or whatever – was already being phased in. The county rarely fails to run any transit until it falls apart.
So very little would be lost if the mayor, the commission chairman, the Transportation Planning Organization and all involved agreed today to push the mayor’s mostly-bus plan forward – so long as they all also move forward plans like those Mr. Bovo outlines.
And while Mr. Bovo clearly prefers rail – a choice we share – he also is pragmatic when he says that the decision on transit mode in each corridor can come later, and indeed he agrees with the mayor and many area residents that bus rapid transit may well be the long-term solution for Kendall.
That still leaves gulfs on where to get money to go beyond buses and how to pay to operate and maintain new corridors.
For operations and maintenance, Mr. Bovo plans to introduce county legislation this fall that would create tax increment financing along the six new transit corridors – in other words, new development and increased property values along the corridors would be assumed to mostly result from new transit, and anywhere from 25% to 50% of the added taxes in the area would be set aside to maintain and operate the new transit.
Mayor Giménez, on the other hand, wants to have the operating and maintenance costs of new transit in hand when service begins and is budgeting for that in his plans. Mr. Bovo calls that conservative. We call it the smart way to operate the new SMART transit routes.
If you’ve been around a while you may recall when the City of Miami constructed a sparkling fountain with unique water displays in Bayfront Park that was dedicated to Mildred and Rep. Claude Pepper. It was expensive but a showpiece. If you never saw it in action, it’s only because the city had money to build it but none to run it. So the city ripped out the costly spray mechanism and for decades the fountain has been mostly dry.
Mayor Giménez was a city firefighter at the time and probably remembers. Moral: if you don’t have the money in hand to run it, don’t build it.
Mr. Bovo’s financing for transit operations and maintenance is a projection based on an untried tax. Values along transit should rise, we agree, but by how much and how fast? That’s a gamble.
We need solid operations and maintenance funding from the get-go; then, add tax increment financing too. The worst thing that could happen is we’d have too much operating money. We’re certain the county could deal with a surplus more easily than a deficit if we used only tax increment financing and it fell short of projections. Conservative financing isn’t bad financing.
Finally, how to fund all this.
The mayor says between local funds and matching money from the state we can do it all.
Mr. Bovo says we should agree that the north-south corridor from Florida City to the Broward line, held together by existing Metrorail in the middle, is our single priority and ask for help from Congress to make it reality.
His multi-step plan would shift $30 million yearly in federal highway funds to transit funding, freeing $30 million a year in funds from our transportation sales tax to be bonded to bring in $720 million; take $75 million in capital reserves from the transit sales tax; get $370 in federal credits for Metrorail cars and the airport Metrorail extension that we have never collected; and the total would be $1.09 billion of the estimated $1.2 billion needed for the north-south line.
That’s a mess of hoops to jump through. They all seem possible. Putting them all together at once will be one of the great circus tricks in our community’s history, but there’s no good reason not to try.
And while trying all of those, we need to speed the mayor’s plan forward, because it has only a few hoops. His plan is just a one-ring circus; Mr. Bovo’s is three rings, plus.
We agree with Mr. Bovo that it’s senseless to argue today over transit modes or battle over which corridor is to be running first – under either his plan or the mayor’s, the Northeast rail corridor from downtown to Aventura is probably first for speed. And for purposes of dealing with the federal government, a north-south plan as a single entity should be top priority.
So a continental divide in the future of new transit here should be starting with total common ground: get the mayor’s state-local transportation partnership plan rolling today while at the same time trying to piece together Mr. Bovo’s far more complex plans for the next phases of transit expansion.
We have nothing to lose but our gridlock.