Will belittled buses become our little engines that could?
Metrorail to the Broward County line, to which Miami-Dade’s Transportation Planning Organization committed last week, fulfills a 35-year pledge but is unlikely to actually roll until long after South Dade residents have been cramming into their belittled bus rapid transit.
The two new transit legs of the county’s six-corridor Smart transportation plan differ sharply in every respect.
The South Dade busway from Kendall to Florida City once was Henry Flagler’s rail route to the Keys and is ready for service once new station platforms and signals are in place. Money to build is available, the county says, even if the federal government doesn’t kick in a third of the $300 million total cost. But officials and residents in South Dade distain any transit mode that contains the word “bus”.
North Dade’s route planned for Metrorail is up 27th Northwest Avenue on elevated tracks. That will require intense engineering and acquiring bits and pieces of ground-level right-of-way for supports and stations. Just fully planning for the route will take years. Money, too, is a major issue: it isn’t there to either build or run Metrorail. But officials and residents love the idea of a link to the miles of Metrorail track that now stretch south to meet the busway.
South Dade got low-cost, do-able fast buses and isn’t happy. North Dade got higher-cost, pie-in-the-sky Metrorail and is ecstatic.
Metrorail service going north is now estimated at $1.9 billion to build, with the federal government to be asked for almost $1 billion and the state almost a half billion. The county has transit tax resources but would have to beg the state and federal governments for three-quarters of the cost, and they have yet to commit a penny.
Metrorail north, if and when built, has one great advantage: it would connect seamlessly to the old Metrorail system, with no change of train needed. Mass transit works best when passengers don’t have to shift modes of travel.
The South Dade solution, on the other hand, will require passengers headed north of Kendall to leave the bus and board existing Metrorail at Dadeland. The time and motion spent changing modes works against transit.
Whether Metrorail north will actually increase today’s total of Metrorail riders is a question. The system has been bleeding riders – 3.4% of them last year, 4.2% the year before, 6.9% the year before that.
Consultants say a new north leg would add 16,200 passengers a day to today’s 62,000 – a 26% gain. But if passenger counts continue to slip 3.4% a year and the new line begins service in eight years (the earliest date forecast) the system will have lost so many riders that the influx will just bring the total use back to what it is today.
The other concern is whether in adding to Metrorail the county will be relying on technology that goes more out of date with every passing day.
In a series of Miami Today columns in 2017, the late Maurice Ferré argued convincingly that we should not be building 19th century rail technology in the 21st century as other rapid transit modes become more and more efficient and less costly.
The county chose Metrorail, keeping a 1984 pledge to North Dade as technology became more aged and riders across the county were rejecting Metrorail even though it is adding brand-new equipment.
Last December, when the Transportation Planning Organization settled on elevated transit for North Dade versus the ground-level busway to the south, there was hope that the answer to financing the north line would be a public-private partnership.
But attracting private partners requires a likelihood of substantial profit. A rail route that stops dead at the Broward County line and is part of money- and passenger-bleeding Metrorail does not on its face seem a candidate for a $1.9 billion private investment with a profit motive.
The new private Brightline rail service, which is losing money on trains while profiting on real estate developments along the way, might be a parallel to study. If the Northwest 27th Avenue corridor can be sold to investors as a real estate play, a partnership with government could be more likely. But cutting that deal with all its complexities with the right partners might take a decade.
It might take just as long to secure adequate federal and state funding – if it can be done at all.
The first fleet of commuter-jammed South Dade buses might wear out before a North Dade Metrorail line is up and running.