It’s decades past time to get transit lines rolling – move now
Written by Michael Lewis on June 5, 2018
Miami Beach sent the state a plan to join with Miami and run light rail from 63rd Street on the Beach south and then across the bay to downtown Miami.
The whole thing could be done for $220 million to $260 million, the plan said, running rail every 10 to 15 minutes for 19 hours and carrying 30,000 people a day.
The plan was the perfect solution to Miami Beach and Beach-Miami traffic congestion that has ballooned for years – so perfect that it’s a crying shame the whole idea died after the state got it more than 30 years ago.
Leafing through that April 1988 package to Tallahassee reveals that one leg of the Smart plan that the county is now trying to build could have been serving us almost three decades ago. Had it been built with bonded debt, that debt would now be repaid.
The Beach-Miami system, meanwhile, could have carried nearly 11 million riders a year for 30 years – about 12% of what all county transit services now carry.
Could have, would have, should have – but we didn’t do it.
So two years ago we were talking about spending $776 million to build only part of that line, from downtown Miami up to the Miami Beach Convention Center and no farther, shortening the 1988 plan about 4.5 miles for three times the cost.
Of course, we didn’t do that either, just as the many light rail plans for the Beach have gone by the wayside since 1988. That’s 30 years times 11 million riders a year – 330 million rides – taken up the Beach or across the causeway by car instead of mass transit while we dithered over which plan or which transit mode or which route or which vendor or which team of participants or which funding source to use.
Now the transit flavor of the day has shifted to Personal Rapid Transit, carrying a handful of riders in each pod in a system touted as costing only $10 million a mile, versus the $12 million to $13 million a mile of the light rail plan 30 years ago.
Sounds wonderful. Sounds like a bargain.
But it also sounds like we should have built the light rail 30 years ago and had 330 million rides in the interim, even if we could have saved millions in a 30-year wait marked by increasing roadway congestion.
The point is, we’ve got to stop debating and waiting and start actually using a transit mode, whatever it might be and whoever might be in charge and whatever route it takes to get there.
Every mode has fans. Aerial gondolas to the Beach, Personal Mass Transit to the Beach, light rail to the Beach, ground-level Metrorail to the Beach – one has to be better than another, one has to be cheaper, one has to be easier – but do we want to spend 30 years hunting for perfection instead of riding?
Former Miami Mayor Maurice Ferré, in a series of articles on this page last year, warned against investing in costly and dying rail transit.
Current Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Giménez first was a proponent of heavy rail, then shifted to trains of buses running on city streets, and now seems to have moved to Personal Rapid Transit for at least some county transit legs.
This newspaper has long sought as few transit modes as possible in order to build ridership, because more passengers will ride if they don’t have to transfer. (The automobile is the ultimate no-transfer ride, which may be one reason we have so much trouble getting people to leave theirs at home and use public transit instead.)
In short, it’s like herding cats to get us all on the same track for just a transit mode, much less route, timing or financing. Get 10 Miamians in a room and you’ll hear 11 firmly held viewpoints on what we need in transit – after all, we’re all experts because we all go somewhere.
Even if we could all agree today on how to get there, some new form of transit is going to come down the road in a few months to distract us.
That’s why it’s time – right now – for government to stop studying transit modes, pick one and get it done. Mr. Ferré may be absolutely right that rail is a 19th century solution. But people still board those 19th century solutions every day and go from here to there aboard them – Brightline won’t release figures but it must have some riders on its brand-new run from Miami to Palm Beach, and we’re positive that Tri-Rail will carry passengers when it finally rolls into downtown Miami.
We also know that Bus Rapid Transit, which is like a train, would carry people if it got started. So would airborne gondolas or Personal Rapid Transit or roadways filled with autonomous vehicles, which can run far closer together than cars driven by human beings who are, after all, human when it comes to reaction time.
If we keep waiting, the cost of mobility may fall, new modes will appear, and a changing cast of officials will shift opinions on what we should do where. But meanwhile, we’ll keep suffering from increased road congestion that slows us down and – worse – makes arrival times less and less certain. That is a huge human, psychological and economic cost.
Just think: was it worth the loss of 330 million transit rides to keep debating what to do about Baylink for three decades? If we’d built it then, we’d have spent less than $1 a ride for infrastructure and now own the system free and clear – and 330 million rides would have been taken without worrying about traffic.
Bottom line: any transit mode we put into service today is going to beat waiting for tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow and…
Even the second-best choice is going to be far better than doing nothing. We’ve tried doing nothing for 30 years and, guess what, it didn’t work. In transit, action is better than waiting and waiting for future perfection.