It's well past time for Miami to board the big-league trolley
It's taking less time to build a massive baseball stadium in Miami than to roll a small fleet of rubber-tire trolleys.
Two years ago the city and state cut a deal to run the first four trolleys in the Health District to link 14 institutions, nine garages and Metrorail.
The city has since planned four more routes and studied a sixth to the new stadium. It's still planning and planning.
But don't plan to ride a trolley to the stadium on opening day even if the system miraculously gears up. Not one trolley is yet ordered, and the city says delivery takes 12 to 18 months.
If the city finally ordered this week — and there's no sign of that — trolleys could be too late for spring 2012 opening day. And the stadium won approval months after the city-state trolley deal.
The point is not baseball's need but Miami's. Regardless of whether a stadium route ever rolls, five others idle in line to meet everyday needs, not just for 81 games. And Miamians with transit needs that actually exist are not riding trolleys that don't.
Miami ran trolleys up to 1940 but on fixed rails, unlike the present buses rigged to look like historic trolleys. Now people who wouldn't be caught dead on a bus — social stigma, quality and convenience are some reasons — love the rubber-tire format.
Trolleys on tires can't fill our vast urban transit gap. But they're nice neighborhood stopgaps, offering very low-cost mobility in dense areas.
Nearby, Coral Gables' eight trolleys carry 5,000 persons each weekday. The city funds it all with half its annual $1.2 million from the county's half-cent transit surtax plus cash from the Florida Department of Transportation and the Metropolitan Planning Organization.
In its seven years, the Gables system's 4.4 million riders have paid not a penny. Downtown Gables loves it, perhaps because the system daily frees more than 750 parking spaces that cost taxpayers more than $20,000 each.
Miami too has cash to roll trolleys. Federal stimulus aid provided $4 million to buy them. The state agreed to match the city at $164,560 each for operating the Health District route and $600,000 apiece for a Brickell-Biscayne Boulevard run.
Trolleys benefit the public. When the Gables hauls 5,000 riders, it's keeping several thousand cars off its streets in business hours. Think of reduced congestion and pollution plus increased mobility for businesspeople, residents and visitors. More mobility means more store sales and restaurant meals as well as better living.
Those 5,000 daily riders disprove the adage that you can't get Miamians out of cars. You can, but it takes convenience, cleanliness, timeliness and the right cost.
New younger downtowners also are more likely to ride transit. As Miami becomes more city and less sprawl, that willingness becomes pure need, increased by every traffic jam, every new resident
What or who is stalling a trolley system is unclear.
A former administration hatched the plan. Mayor Manny Diaz wanted fixed-rail streetcars linking downtown to Midtown Miami, a lovely idea whose time came and went even before the economic plunge.
The Diaz administration also backed the more practical trolley concept. But current Mayor Tomás Regalado has dumped many of his predecessor's aims.
The city also faced a cash crunch, and although most trolley funding comes from outside, city hall hasn't visibly prioritized trolleys.
In public, administrators say a consultant is still studying the plan. The city is always just about to get the consultant's report, which never arrives.
When it does, Miami will have to decide whether to charge riders.
The fare question is a fair question. City officials note the county's free Metromover became a country club for the homeless. That scares them.
But fares could toss the baby out with the bathwater: Not only would they bar the homeless, but they might also deter targeted riders in one of the nation's poorer cities.
A free trial is logical. Let all ride free to build interest and prove merit and then see whether homeless congregate aboard.
It's unlikely. It didn't happen in the Gables. Further, on trolleys, unlike the Metromover, live drivers actually control passengers.
Make it easy to succeed.
Also, make it quick. Each day that trolleys don't roll the environment, users and the economy suffer. Congestion and inconvenience grow.
The Florida Marlins told us a city cannot be great without a Major League Baseball stadium. Think Kansas City, Anaheim and St. Petersburg.
Experience tells us cities cannot be great without public transportation. Think London, Paris and Tokyo.
We'll be in the stadium big league in 2012. How about joining the cities in the public transportation big league too?