Rubber-tire travel for South Dade Transitway gains traction
Written by Jesse Scheckner on August 28, 2018
Support for bus expansion on the South Dade Transitway is mounting ahead of the pivotal vote today (8/30) to determine the fate of Miami-Dade’s southernmost transportation corridor, as the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce last week joined Mayor Carlos Giménez’s administration in throwing weight behind a rubber-tire solution.
On Aug. 21, the chamber’s board of directors voted 92% in favor of applying for a federal grant to support Gold Standard Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) development between the Dadeland Metrorail station and Southwest 344th Street in Florida City, chamber President Alfred Sanchez told Miami Today.
“We’ve been studying this for a while. We didn’t go at this willy-nilly,” Mr. Sanchez said. “It’s the right transportation for the ridership available now.”
Choosing bus today, he said, would permit future conversion to at-grade Metrorail, the other considered mode, should ridership eventually merit the expenditure.
“We can have a faster solution and still not close the door to rail later on,” he said. “Many members came in thinking rail was the only option. A lot left saying Gold Standard was a no-brainer.”
Though installing and maintaining rail on the transitway would exude a more permanent, “world-class” feel, the cost of doing so would run the county’s Strategic Miami Area Rapid Transit (SMART) Plan into the ground financially, leaving very little funding for expansion in the plan’s remaining five corridors, said Sergio Abreu, chair of the chamber’s Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
“A rail solution in the south corridor – that being the longest corridor in the whole SMART Plan – would essentially consume 70% of the available financial resources for the entire plan,” said Mr. Abreu, who is director of local government, community relations and economic development for TECO Energy.
It doesn’t make sense, Mr. Abreu said, to throw the preponderance of available funds toward a mode with not enough ridership to support it.
“The ridership issue is the basis for federal funding,” he said. “All the experts we’ve talked to that have gone through this process have told us the most important thing the federal government is looking for is that the transportation solution you adopt is consistent with the current ridership plus some projected number of growth based on current land use plans. Based on [that], the formula lends itself best to Gold Standard BRT.”
The cost of southbound rail expansion along the corridor, once estimated to cost $700 million, has since swollen to $1.3 billion, according to Transportation Planning Organization (TPO) Executive Director Aileen Bouclé.
That cost, including about $67 million in annual operating costs – almost double the existing $76 million it costs to run the current 25-mile Metrorail line – over 40 years would consume $4.3 billion.
BRT over that same stretch would require just 12% of SMART Plan funds, or roughly $865 million.
“It’s a smart investment,” Mr. Abreu said. “There are things you’re spending that money on – a good chunk of the capital investment – that are things that automatically become part of a rail solution in the future.”
The chamber vote came a day after the county’s Transportation Planning Council OK’d amendments to Miami-Dade’s 2040 transportation plan and 2018-19 Transportation Improvement Program to allow for a $100 million infusion to construct “premium transit infrastructure” on the transitway.
Once built, various planned components, including 12 weather-controlled stations, terminal upgrades, crossing gates and signal preemption at all 45 transitway intersections, could accommodate future rail alterations.
“That’s the idea – the convertibility, [which] could be done relatively easily,” said Albert Hernandez, assistant county transportation director.
If the TPO Governing Board approves Gold Standard BRT today, it could be planned and built within three years and “in terms of passengers – the experience they get – it’s as close to rail as can be,” Mr. Giménez said.
“The problem with bus rapid transit is the word ‘bus,’” he said. “For all intents and purposes, it’s rail on rubber tires.”
A gold standard designation would afford Miami-Dade an elite status shared in the US only by Albuquerque, which in November became the first system in the nation to earn the top rank from the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy.
Just 10 systems worldwide have a gold rating. Twenty-two, including systems in Cleveland and Hartford, CN, are rated silver. Systems in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Pittsburgh and Eugene, OR, are among 18 systems around the globe with bronze grades.
To be rated gold, a BRT system must score 85 or higher on a 100-point scorecard that lists having a dedicated right-of-way, off-board fare collection, platform-level boarding, traffic signal priority and basic necessities, according to the institute’s website.
A gold-rated BRT corridor along the South Dade Transitway, with all the accompanying features – including proposed electric buses that would be substantially quieter than the county’s current compressed natural gas buses or hybrid articulated buses – would be just as fast, efficient and convenient as Metrorail, if not more so, Transportation Director Alice Bravo said.
“The time savings for someone going from Florida City to Dadeland on BRT is the same or better than it would be with rail,” she said, adding that BRT boasts operational flexibility that rail can’t compete with. “With rail, if a train breaks down with a medical emergency, the entire system is impacted. With BRT, you merely bypass the vehicle having the issue.”
But wait, there’s a third option, said Javier Betancourt, executive director of the Citizens’ Independent Transportation Trust, which oversees the transit surtax.
Last week, trust members adopted a resolution urging the TPO to consider a hybrid approach that would extend Metrorail 12 miles south from Dadeland to Southland Mall at 20505 S Dixie Hwy., where a BRT line could take travelers further south to Homestead.
“This would essentially meet it halfway,” he said. “We could cut those costs considerably, but it would be more expansive than just BRT. Our members don’t believe that was fully considered as an option. Framing it as simply BRT versus rail, we kind of missed an opportunity to explore some combination of the two.”