Transit progress is slower than the ride, as are answers
Written by Michael Lewis on November 28, 2017
Eight years ago the county sought bids to replace its creaky Metrorail fleet, built in 1983. This week officials will welcome the first new train.
Barring more delays, all 136 cars built for hundreds of millions of dollars are to be ready before 2020, well over a decade after they were requested.
That’s the pace of Miami-Dade transit upgrades as it gets harder and harder to arrive anywhere by any means at a reliable time.
The public is fed up.
So are county commissioners, who last week vented frustrations as they felt forced to cut bus service to balance the budget. They threatened to audit the transit system and even suggested making all transit free until it can get its act together.
Commissioners must cope with a paradox: the worse Miami’s roadway traffic gets as population grows, the fewer riders are willing to board public transportation.
This month the county quietly posted its latest ridership figures, which cover August – even the statistics on transit run late and unreliably. Those numbers, tardy as they are, show a disquietingly familiar pattern of declines across the board with the sole exception of a service to carry wheelchair users.
In August, Metrobus riders dropped 7.6% from August 2016, Metrorail riders fell 1.1% in those 12 months, and even the fare-free Metromover carried 3.2% fewer passengers.
If you can’t get more people in a congested downtown beset by Brickell Bridge traffic jams to ride a free Metromover that avoids backups, the suggestion by Commissioner Bruno Barreiro to make all transit free isn’t going to stem the mass transit exit.
Furthermore, the proposed six-route Smart plan to tie together the county via transit for untallied billions isn’t going to solve all the problems even if we could unite on which transit modes to use and then cobble together billions to pay for them.
There’s no one reason for the drop of mass transit use just as road use has reached its peak, and there isn’t going to be a single cure. There’s also no villain or fall guy. As commissioners turned up the heat on county transit last week they seemed to be seeking one target, but no one agency or person or trend is to blame.
Nonetheless, a transit department audit, which several commissioners called for, would logically point to several key contributors to system woes.
One glaring flaw is that for decades the commission itself never funded full transit maintenance, so ride quality and reliability sank and use began to follow.
Then, when the public taxed itself a half percent on sales to fund more transit routes, commissioners stripped away most of those funds to pay for maintenance and employee raises instead of adding to an incomplete rail system that doesn’t cover large swaths of the county.
Another huge problem is that on any given day more than 20% of transit drivers call in sick, harming quality and reliability of service and sending labor costs for the unionized drivers through the roof.
Private industry would never put up with that. In county hall, which doesn’t have to turn a profit, it just means spending 20% extra on labor every day and taking the money from service frequency and routes. Commissioners who were steaming last week at route cuts should look to 20% of labor costs flowing out the door with not a mile of transit service in return.
Another issue is that everything the county does in transit seems to take forever, including use of computer-linked signals to speed auto traffic. From the time the county spends tens of millions to add mobility to the time we see the purchase in action is multiple years – more than 10 years for the rail cars.
The transit department itself blames falling ridership on lower gasoline costs and a better economy, but if so mass transit is too cyclical to predict use, making it more problematic to add to the system.
Some also blame Miamians, saying we’re too addicted to our cars. Indeed, fewer than 5% of us ride mass transit to work. Would adding routes solve that, or would we be smarter to use some transit money to pay people to carpool? How much less would we spend paying them than adding transit and then getting them to ride it?
Maybe Mayor Carlos Giménez is right: technological change is so rapid that we need ways to move people faster right now at the lowest cost and worry in a decade about what comes next. His bet is on a China-built bus-train in dedicated rights-of-way. That might be a piece of the puzzle.
Again, there is no villain and no single quick fix.
Commissioners who lash out against route cuts to balance the budget should remember that they can shift the budget around to fund whatever transit they want. In the end, they can prioritize spending as they see fit.
Raising taxes to add transit is the easy way. The harder step is to say that mobility is so vital that it will get a larger share of the current budget, meaning other things must be cut.
Private business does that. It doesn’t spend more than it earns or it’s not there next year.
That’s a hard concept for politicians, because the money isn’t theirs. It belongs to the taxpayers. If the top priority is transportation, commissioners can always shift spending and cut elsewhere, if they’re willing to take the heat.
If Mr. Barreiro wants free transit for all, he and the other 12 commissioners can have it if they’re willing to cover the fare loss by cutting spending elsewhere.
What do we cut: Social services? Jails? Parks? Housing? County salaries? Commissioners’ own office budgets, which have mushroomed over the years?
If everything else is untouchable and transit revenues keep falling along with service, the county is condemned to a never-ending downward spiral in mobility.
Someone is going to have to bite bullets. Nothing is wrong with auditing the transit department for efficiency, but commissioners should look first for what steps they can take, right now, to quickly improve mobility here.
The last thing we need is to pay for another study.nsit