County considers dropping plans for airport-seaport link
By Shannon Pettypiece
Miami-Dade County may eliminate plans for a Metrorail line between Miami International Airport and the Port of Miami for lack of demand.
Surface Transportation Manager Carlos Bonzon said this week that there is little interest in a multimillion-dollar rail extension from a planned transportation hub near the airport to the seaport.
"The Miami Intermodal Center-to-seaport connection is flawed," said Mr. Bonzon, a former deputy aviation director. "The cruise lines would never agree to it."
Mr. Bonzon said that even with the link, cruise passengers would have to make several mass-transit transfers from the airport. The extension would have passengers take a light-rail train from the airport to the intermodal center, where they would transfer to Metrorail. Once at the seaport, some passengers would have to walk or take a shuttle to their boarding gate.
"That extension was based on the premise that we would be able to effectively transfer cruise passengers. That would be effective if we could have Metrorail go directly into the airport terminal, and that is not feasible," Mr. Bonzon said this week.
"The plan in 1998 was to take it to (the intermodal center) and transfer to a people mover," he said. "It was not customer-friendly, and the cruise lines were not that happy with that setup."
Almost 38% of Miami International's domestic passengers are cruise customers.
If the link is abandoned, a Metrorail expansion could go southeast from the transit center but stop in downtown Miami at the Stephen P. Clark Government Center, Mr. Bonzon said.
An airport-to-seaport extension was one of the mass-transit improvements approved by voters in November 2002 with a half-cent sales-tax increase. It has been under consideration for more than a decade.
If the county wants to eliminate the extension from its long-range plan, it would have to get the approval of the Citizens' Independent Transportation Trust, which oversees spending of the half-cent tax, and the county's transportation planning board, the Metropolitan Planning Organization.
An airport-seaport line is part of a planned $2.2 billion east-west Metrorail line connecting Florida International University, the Palmetto Expressway, the Intermodal Center, downtown Miami and the seaport.
Projected ridership is unknown, but the link could service several million riders annually by 2017 - including cruise passengers and some of the seaport's 40,000 employees, Mr. Bonzon said. The county now runs a bus route in and out of the port for employees.
As the county considers cutting the airport-to-seaport line, it must determine if abandoning it would affect other parts of the planned east-west extension. The county has opened bidding for a consulting service to study the issue.
"We are in the process of selecting a consultant to take a look at the entire east-west line to try and salvage as much as possible from what was previously done by the Florida Department of Transportation," Mr. Bonzon said. "That would include reevaluating the need to go to the Port of Miami."
One possible effect could be a decrease in ridership projections, which the federal government considers when judging if a project should be funded.
Officials with the Port of Miami and Carnival Cruise Lines said they have not discussed a Metrorail line with the county in many years.
Carnival spokeswoman Jennifer De La Cruz said it is not an issue for the company, which is satisfied with its shuttle service. Cruise passengers can ride a shuttle operated by their cruise line directly from the airport to the gate where they board ship.
Ms. De La Cruz said Carnival makes sure passengers can get from the airport to the ship and has greeters meet passengers at their airport gate and help with their luggage. Carnival charges $11 for a one-way shuttle ride, Ms. De La Cruz said, although it offers the shuttle for free to passengers who book their flights through Carnival.
The Florida Department of Transportation, which is building the Miami Intermodal Center, has not expected cruise passengers to use the transportation hub to connect to Metrorail or their cruise shuttle, said spokesman Ric Katz.
"When you are showing up with children and luggage, it is a different kind of traveler," Mr. Katz said. "In the end, the cruise lines were not interested."