Unfortunately, new rail transit likely to be Covid-19 victim
There are a number of reasons to carefully heed Miami-Dade Commission Chairwoman Audrey Edmonson’s concerns about planning a Metrorail extension from downtown Miami to the Broward County line. Just look around and you’ll see them.
As she noted at a recent transportation planning meeting, Metrorail is the most expensive transit we could get for the county’s North Corridor. It’s really good, but it’s now expected to cost $1.9 billion to build. Changes could trim costs to $1.75 billion, but even that would be hundreds of millions above any other type of fixed-route transit. It’s not like Miami-Dade is awash in excess money to buy the best.
But beyond spending too much money that we don’t have, other vital reasons compel us to reconsider transit planners’ aims to run rail to the county line.
First is that as the US government and State of Florida both battle the economic and health impacts of Covid-19, any money to build transit is likely to be pie in the sky not just for now but for years or decades. Hundreds of billions now being directed to economically injured individuals and corporations must come from somewhere, and funds for new transit will probably become an early victim of belt tightening.
No matter how much we might want new Metrorail, government funding that would make it possible isn’t going to exist.
Second, if we built more transit we’d be trying to push water uphill. Miami-Dade’s transit had been losing riders for years. The system had lost 22.6% of its monthly riders in just four years by the end of 2019, before anyone had heard of the coronavirus. That’s more than 1.9 million riders lost over four Decembers alone.
Then, when the virus hit and businesses closed in the shutdown, county transit use fell another 80% from that low point at end of last year, according to Transportation Director Alice Bravo. Riders would have to come back and then increase to make more transit practical.
The third factor, however, is that it just got much harder to regain riders who have left county transit.
It’s widely believed that in cities with heavily-used transit like New York’s subway, Covid-19 spread massively in crowded rail cars. What percentage of former riders here are going to want to return until they believe that it’s perfectly safe to ride?
Moreover, in our shutdown of commuting many workers were able to do their jobs at home. Some aren’t going to want to commute again, by rail or any other way. And employers who found that any productivity drop in a work-at-home world was more than made up for by lower costs at the job site may want to allow employees to remain home more often. Workers who stay home don’t spend time and money commuting, even on the Rolls Royce of rail.
A fourth factor sadly at play may also linger: unemployment is soaring, and it may be years, if ever, until we see the rate in Miami-Dade fall back to below 2%, a level we enjoyed just before the pandemic. In truth, economists used to say 4% unemployment was the best we could hope for. Greater unemployment equals less commuting, which leads to less need for any kind of added rail transit.
The lessening practicality of Metrorail means that less expensive transit like a cousin of downtown’s Metromover or even an interesting choice like magnetic levitation, called maglev, also would be overpriced and potentially underused.
Of course, a choice of a transit mode is all just planning. It’s an aspiration with no firm dates.
Miami Today has long favored rail transit or its cousins. It would be ideal to link every corner of Miami-Dade by comfortable, rapid, convenient and reliable rail.
Unfortunately, the pandemic and its economic crash create an environment where those transit modes become less practical. They’d cost money we won’t have to create capacity we won’t use, at least not for years.
In a new reality, more rail is less compelling.
The unknowns are how long this or a new wave of Covid-19 might threaten us, and how they will alter how we work and live in the interim. Our economic nosedive will be temporary, but will it last months or years?
Chairwoman Edmonson was wise to raise a red flag on Metrorail. We should extend that concern to any mass transit investment plans until we can assess accurately the lasting impact of the virus and our economic plunge.