Miami-Miami Beach link put on back burner
By Shannon Pettypiece
A mass-transit link of downtown Miami and Miami Beach is taking a back seat to other projects as Miami-Dade County sets priorities for spending a half-percent sales surtax.
A light-rail trolley, BayLink, that would connect the cities will not be ready until 2022, according to county plans. The county's transportation planning board approved the link last fall.
Instead, the county will focus on Metrorail extensions to Miami International Airport and Florida International University and up 27th Avenue to the Broward County line. All three extensions are to open in 2012.
If all goes according to the county's most recent transit-funding schedule, residents will see a Metrorail tunnel to the Port of Miami before they see a modern trolley rolling across MacArthur Causeway.
"The other projects are larger projects, and they are projects, especially the east-west corridor, that as far as relief of congestion are of much greater magnitude," Metropolitan Planning Organization Director Jose-Luis Mesa said. "Right now, the way the program is moving, the east-west and the north corridors continue to be the first priorities."
Mr. Mesa said the transit project schedule could be changed, depending on availability of federal funds.
Plans for the link have been heavily debated for two decades, and the Metropolitan Planning Organization in September approved a basic route and technology mode for the system.
The Miami Beach City Commission approved BayLink this year, the first time since 1988 that both cities have backed the concept.
The county estimates BayLink would carry almost 5 million riders a year and cost $400 million.
Metrorail's airport extension would carry 1 million riders a year and cost $215 million, the FIU extension would cost $440 million with an unestimated ridership and the port extension would cost $1.8 billion with 8.4 million riders annually, according to a Metropolitan Planning Organization study.
The county's priorities for the projects were laid out recently in an assessment of a half-percent sales tax approved by voters in 2002.
The Florida Department of Transportation is not involved in BayLink, said local spokeswoman Aymee Ruiz.
Instead, the state is focusing on the Metrorail extensions to the airport and seaport, which fit into the state's long-range goal of connecting major transportation hubs, she said.
Once the Department of Transportation gets involved in BayLink, she said, it could take up to 20 years to have it running. "Average project life could be 20 years from concept to concrete," Ms. Ruiz said. "Property is so hot that it becomes quite a challenge because we buy property at fair market value."
The county, though, is working to get the Federal Transit Administration to recognize BayLink so planners can begin preliminary engineering, said Wilson Fernandez of the Metropolitan Planning Organization.
Another round of meetings will take place as consultants put together details, Mr. Fernandez said.
"Now we are focused in on what side of the street the rail is going to be on and where the stations would be located," he said. "It is getting into more details of the plan."
Carlos Bonzon, county surface transportation manager, said the county will push to win federal funding for BayLink along with other mass-transit projects. "We are trying to advance all of (the corridors) through the process to make sure they have federal funding at some point," Mr. Bonzon said.
Mr. Fernandez said that if funding were immediately available or if the county gave the project a higher priority, BayLink could be running by 2012.