Cross-bay transit is vital, but blank-check deal is all wrong
Miami-Dade made a costly bet plopping down $8 million for designs of a multi-billion-dollar monorail in a deal with a global firm whose true interest is a mammoth gambling resort.
The consortium that includes Malaysian casino mogul Genting aims to build a monorail linking Miami to Miami Beach and then operate it. But taxpayers would repay the group, at a profit, and then fund rail operations for 30 years. The consortium would keep proceeds from retail, food, beverages, and naming rights. Taxpayers would just get to pay and pay.
There’s no signed deal or even a list of terms, but the county must pay the consortium $6 million more if no deal is made. If we do go ahead, we’ll pay at least $60 million a year. County officials say they have no idea where that money would come from.
But officials do know one thing: the mayor and six or seven commissioners leave office within weeks. They can make one or more huge deals now (another questionable one is on track with rail firm Brightline) and act like heroes. Their successors will have three decades to regret the deals and figure out how to pay for them.
It’s like outgoing officeholders dumping a baby on successors’ doorstep. Whether the newcomers want a baby or not, it’s all theirs to raise. Let taxpayers send the kid to Harvard and then a costly grad school. Dump it and run.
That’s what some of these county officials did with Marlins Stadium. In the deal they cut, the county must repay $118 million a year for seven years because they put balloon payments at the end. Nobody who voted for that $3 billion stadium will be in office when the balloon goes up. And like the monorail, the team never pays a cent for construction but gets all the benefits – retail, food, beverage, naming rights and far more. Don’t we ever learn?
Don’t get me wrong: Marlins Stadium is fine. It’s just the world’s worst deal. We overpaid billions for what we didn’t need – that stadium has never been filled for baseball. Meanwhile, the bill is coming due.
The consortium could well build a good monorail: lead partner Meridiam built the functional Port of Miami Tunnel. But we have many reservations about a rushed deal that has yet to be put on paper even though the county has committed $14 million to the consortium.
A monorail might or might not be affordable, but it certainly wouldn’t link into current transit without a change of vehicles. It’s not compatible with Metrorail or Metromover. A monorail passenger would have to use two or more transit modes unless the passenger was going simply to or from Casinoland – our shorthand for the world’s largest casino that Genting sought on the former Miami Herald land it bought for $236 million for that purpose.
That bayfront site now is ticketed as the monorail’s mainland terminus. That’s ideal for Genting: the public would pay the firm to build and run transit directly to and from its own casino, bringing Miami Beach tourists to gamble the night away. Genting keeps lobbying the state to legalize the casino, which would get easier in today’s economic slide.
Again, don’t get me wrong: Miami Today has backed transit linking Miami Beach and downtown Miami since Miami Beach issued its “Light Rail Transit System Status Report to the Florida Legislature” in April 1988. A Baylink is right – under proper circumstances.
One of those is to put stations where they belong, not where they serve one company betting on a Casinoland future. The City of Miami Beach, which also dissents in this deal, is calling for a Baylink station elsewhere, directly connected with countywide Metrorail.
At best, the Genting-Meridiam consortium plan would require a change from monorail to Metromover and then again to Metrorail to link to the countywide system and actually benefit mainland residents going to Miami Beach, including those countywide who work in the Beach. But a format requiring three separate transit modes would help few of those workers.
In a Baylink deal, government must know where funding is to come from and how much is needed. The consortium would pay up front, but taxpayers would pay the consortium an unknown bill to construct the monorail at a profit plus provide a blank check for operating costs. That unknown price tag with unknown sources of payment scares us. You too?
Finally, never cut a deal with a bait-and-switcher. Genting tricked the county into calling for bids by waving a low-balled $450 million price tag, of which Genting was to pay $150 million. But when the consortium bid, its starting price ballooned to $770 million, with not a penny from Genting. Would you deal with a partner who did that?
You might also ask why the consortium includes not just Genting and Meridiam but two top men from the mayor’s past re-election team who set up a secret meeting with Genting, the mayor and some county commissioners in Hong Kong to discuss a future transit deal. We’ve detailed that, together with the county ethics report on the huddle. See details in this column of June 4 at www.miamitodaynews.com or in our digital edition archives.
Tellingly, Miami Beach – which other than Genting would be prime monorail beneficiary – asked the county to await facts before acting. The city has been trying to get this transit for a third of a century. Its hesitation now must be pivotal.
Because no deal is public, it’s unclear whether this monorail would cost too much or be a bargain. But even if all agreed to put transit that won’t serve the working public in a location that would most benefit a future casino, how could commissioners lock in their successors as they’re walking out the door without at least knowing the final cost or where the money is to come from?
Mayoral candidates Esteban Bovo Jr. and Daniella Levine Cava both said in backing this transit disconnect that at least they will get something done on rail before they leave office. The clock was running out and they wanted to leave behind a big project with their name on it.
Now one of them will become the mayor who gets stuck with this white elephant. Will the new mayor again kick the can down the road with payments due after leaving the mayor’s office? Outgoing Mayor Giménez, whose ex-campaign aides are partners in the consortium, didn’t recommend this blank-check deal. How could the two mayoral candidates have done so?
Now one of the two must deal with the human, community and financial costs, because the mayor directs the negotiations. The new mayor needs to drive a hard bargain for the community and listen attentively to Miami Beach. When a city hesitates to accept what it has sought for decades, its concerns must be serious indeed.
Transit should go fast. This deal must not.