Simple vote on rail study makes lots of stops along the line
Written by Michael Lewis on July 10, 2018
A single vote due this week encapsulates six interrelated concerns in getting Miami-Dade County to serve us all better.
The resolution before the Chairman’s Policy Council seems straightforward: it would order Mayor Carlos Giménez to change a consultant’s ongoing study of rapid transit choices on the South Dade Transitway Corridor and pay for an enhancement.
Specifically, Commissioner Dennis Moss is asking that the study of better busway uses include “commuter rail” on a menu that already lists heavy rail, bus rapid transit and autonomous vehicles.
Nothing is inherently wrong in commuter rail north from Homestead – it might work if we could ever afford it. But the resolution nonetheless highlights these six major issues:
1. Time is passing without action. It’s been more than two years since commissioners adopted a so-called Smart plan to create new rapid transit, the South Dade corridor was the only one of the six that actually existed when the resolution passed, and now the county is being asked to go back to square one with a revised study of what to do there. Studies are slow.
2. Transportation needs are growing. Population and visitors here are increasing daily, and the creaky mass transit that we now have is bleeding riders in double-digit percentages yearly. Yet promised new Metrorail cars ordered years ago to replace the 30-year-old trains on the line barely trickle into service many months late. How long would it take to build “commuter rail” cars?
3. Change orders in county contracts are common and costly. Low bidders generally win large county contracts. Yet multiplying change orders drive up contract costs and bidders’ profit margins after the fact, when there is no competition. They also drag out contracts, often for years.
4. The change order would cost money that isn’t budgeted after the mayor has warned commissioners repeatedly that he cannot create money out of thin air in a time of tightening funds. A Fitch Ratings study of the county’s finances warned in June that if voters this fall increase the Homestead exemption, the county’s general fund would take a $37 million hit. How much would starting this study over again actually cost?
5. The county’s mayor-as-manager structure makes it hard to do either job well. The “commuter rail” resolution would order Mr. Giménez as manager to somehow “find” enough money for the augmented study at the same time that Mr. Giménez as mayor is warning commissioners that it’s not fiscally responsible to keep ordering work that isn’t in the budget. A mayor should be leading, not following orders. But in the county’s structure this “strong mayor,” ironically, must follow commission orders.
6. Undefined or unstated terms can cause problems later. “Commuter rail” isn’t defined in the resolution, but it’s considered elsewhere to be far more substantial than mere rapid transit. It usually runs 30 to 125 miles per hour from suburban areas into the heart of an urban hub. Does that hub mean to Dadeland, the northern end of the busway, or does it mean to downtown Miami via the current Metrorail tracks? That’s unstated.
Clearly, “commuter rail” differs from either light rail or Metrorail. It’s a heavier-duty operation. It would probably yield very few stops between Homestead and the heart of Miami, freezing out communities along the way. The resulting “transit envy” could be an impediment, creating opponents such as the ones Brightline is finding in counties where it doesn’t plan to stop on the way from Miami to Orlando.
The largest US commuter rail systems by use are three in New York, one in Philadelphia and one in Chicago – all rail-friendly cities. Such systems have another thing in common: they usually share tracks with freight lines and inter-city rail, lowering costs. But there would be no sharing from Homestead to Dadeland – though commuter rail could share Metrorail tracks from Dadeland to downtown.
Don’t think frequency of trains. Metrorail is supposed to run at five-minute intervals in peak hours. “Commuter rail” generally runs on schedules, far less frequently and fewer hours a day.
Does that concept make sense along the South Dade busway? That essentially is what Mr. Moss is asking in seeking to broaden a study.
We appreciate the question.
Still, we’d rather the vote be narrower, merely asking the mayor how much extra time this added study could take, how much more it would cost to add a fourth possibility after work has already begun (assuming that two years after a county vote, a study has actually begun of transit what-ifs), and what budgeted projects the county would forego in order to examine an unlikely upgrade to a heavier-duty and hence costlier rail system built with money we don’t have.
We’d also want a ballpark estimate of how much extra heavier-duty rail would cost rather than extending Metrorail, which itself would still probably be out of our financial league.
If we study a big rail upgrade more suitable to denser urban areas that already have tracks laid, we might find that it is absolutely the best system that we will never be able to afford.
Is that worth the added wait to make transit decisions and the longer time to get it rolling if we could even afford it, the change order in a country contract that we would have to fund even if we could never finance commuter rail, and the lopping off of now-unspecified other projects in order to expand a study already going on?
The resolution doesn’t touch any of those consequences. Commissioners most likely will vote without even mentioning any of those dominos that would fall, one by one. But fall they would.
Mr. Moss’s resolution makes sense in a vacuum. But in county government, there are no vacuums. Dominos keep falling.