Expense is key obstacle in keeping North Dade rail pledge
Written by Michael Lewis on December 11, 2018
When planners last week certified 13 miles of North Dade elevated rail as the future, it symbolized a promise kept. But was it purely symbolic, with little chance of happening soon – or ever?
Planners four decades ago promised that Metrorail would run there. But it was never built, and residents are still waiting. Last week, though, they celebrated as rail was pledged to finish the job under a 2½-year-old Smart plan for six new transit legs.
But the celebrating was premature. Six roadblocks could easily derail or detour a North Line.
The first is competition. South Dade leaders are already smarting that the Smart plan is giving them bus rapid transit while North Dade is now ticketed for rail. And leaders in four more future corridors also seek transit in their lifetimes. Last week’s rail decision for the North Line didn’t have a time line for anything.
Second is North Line technology. Rail takes multiple shapes. Even though the county is adding cars monthly to replace every train of the current Metrorail, the new trains are merely upgrades of the 1984 model minus the decades of wear and tear.
Other nations are tinkering with new forms of rail at far lower cost per mile than Metrorail, not to mention even less costly modes that look or feel like trains. By the time the county gets around to building a North Line, Metrorail will be even more outmoded.
Then there’s right-of-way. Trains must roll somewhere, and planners last week voted for an elevated roadbed. Not only must it be built, but pillars and stations will be on the ground, which means real estate and air rights must be acquired or have new uses to carry the system. If plans flow right down Northwest 27th Avenue the way is clear, but stations and connections to the ground will still require land acquisitions, which take time.
Then think connectivity. A 13-mile north-south line’s real value would be the ability to reach the entire county via transit. That will require that passengers at the far north can, say, reach the far south conveniently. The most convenient transit is without transfers.
But start that north-south ride on an elevated rail car. If the line is anything but a complete mesh with present Metrorail the ride might go south to a Metromover stop, which might link to Metrorail down to Dadeland and then a high-speed bus ride to the county’s south end – four transit modes in four seats, with three transfers.
The best case for its connectivity would be Metrorail to downtown and then continue to Dadeland for a transfer to the high-speed buses – but that would just extend an outmoded rail system that is the most expensive of all options for the North Line.
Expense is the biggest obstacle. Planners were told last week that consultants say the North Line could cost $1.8 billion. That’s about a billion and a half more than what can be cobbled together today.
Moreover, by the time anything could be built the price would shoot far higher. Costs don’t go down unless technology goes up, and to be affordable the future technology is likely to be either something like magnetic levitation, which can run trains but not what we have today, or else a technology we don’t yet envision.
All of those obstacles are not always acknowledged, but all boil down to time and money. The longer we wait the less technology may cost but also the less we have served residents meanwhile.
For decades we relied on the federal government for the lion’s share to build transit. But if we count on federal or state funds to build the North Line we’re going to wait a long, long time with little likelihood they will provide any more than a small slice of costs.
County Commissioner Barbara Jordan last week pointed toward public-private partnerships as a route to get business, not cash-strapped governments, to pay now for the North Line.
But businesses expect profits. They won’t profit in Miami-Dade by building an expensive elevated rail line: our transit fares are low, a large percentage of riders get discounts on the low prices or ride free, and even so our system has been bleeding passengers for years.
That’s the sixth impediment to a North Line: continual passenger losses. Last fiscal year the system lost 8.6% of total riders. That included a 4.2% loss in Metrorail, which in the past four years has lost 16% of all riders. A countywide rail system wouldn’t have lost so many riders, but it’s unreasonable to assume that with a North Line our continuing losses would reverse to gains large enough that fares could fund a private partner’s expenses to build $1.8 billion worth of rail.
Simple math shows why: even if we raised fares to $3 and ended all discounts and free fares – a political miracle – you’d still need to add 20 million Metrorail riders a year for 30 years to fund North Line construction – and that’s excluding all operating costs, interest on debt or profits to private partners.
Add in operating costs, interest and profits and you need 60 million new fares each year. But Metrorail ridership last year, free and discounted trips included, barely topped 19 million. You’d need more than four times that many to make the numbers work.
No, the only ways North Line rail numbers work are with huge grants or big-time creativity and willingness to take chances.
Creativity might see the county deed very valuable real estate or revenue streams from its assets to a partner to build rail. Mayor Carlos Giménez has listed county-owned real estate assets downtown that developers would prize. This might be a time to swap those assets.
Risk-taking might include willingness for Miami-Dade to become the first user – the real-world testing lab – for a new or vastly altered mode of transit run by outsiders rather than county employees in return for a significantly lower cost that we could actually afford.
It’s easy to tell North Dade residents they’re going to get a brand-new transit Cadillac. Unfortunately, even with our transit sales tax and every other dollar we can muster, we can’t afford even the 1984 model Metrorail.
That will all become clear as planners slowly cost out what they’ve just promised. We will discover that we can’t pay for an elevated North Line.
Meanwhile, the bus rapid transit that South Dade doesn’t prize will be running daily chock full of commuters while we wait and wait for a North Line of Metrorail that we can’t afford.
It’s time for creativity rather than promising what we can’t deliver once again.