Monday, February 01, 2016

Miami-Dade's Transit Nightmare: Poor planning and broken promises

WTVJ, May 21, 1984


"In Miami, the $1 billion subsidy helped build a system that serves less than 10,000 daily riders. That comes to $100,000 per passenger. It would have been a lot cheaper to buy everyone a limousine." —Ronald Reagan, March 1985


"By the year 2000, people will be saying, by gosh, how did we live without it?" —Dade County Commissioner Beverly Phillips in 1985


"This is huge for generations to come. Twenty years from now, this community will look a lot different. You will have Metrorail and Metrobus to every corner of Miami-Dade County, and even into Broward County." —Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas quoted in the Miami Herald, Nov. 6, 2002, after voters approved a half-penny sales tax to build a multi-billion dollar mass transit system


"During the next decade, thanks to the tax, commuters and transit riders can expect a steady stream of improvements in bus and rail service that should culminate in the inauguration of the first two new Metrorail lines since the rapid-transit system opened in 1985, county officials said.

"Just a hint of what that will mean, if all goes according to plan: People will be able for the first time to reach Miami International Airport by Metrorail from North Miami-Dade, from West Miami-Dade, from Kendall, maybe even from South Beach.

"By then, county officials say, a dense network of Metrobus routes will blanket the county, with minibuses reaching into neighborhoods and full-size buses running at short intervals, many of them around the clock." —TRANSIT-TAX BENEFITS KICKING IN RIGHT AWAY, Miami Herald, Nov. 7, 2002


"These days, weekday ridership of Metrorail is 75,000, almost four times what it was in 1985, but only a third of what was predicted." GRIDLOCK,  by John Dorschner, Biscayne Times, Feb. 2016


In 2002, Miami Dade voters approved a half-penny sales tax "to stop traffic nightmares because, in return, politicians promised 90 more miles of Metrorail and almost double the bus fleet," writes former Miami Herald reporter John Dorschner in a cover story in this month's Biscayne Times.

So how's that working out? 

"Well," Dorschner reports, "Metrorail expanded 2.4 miles, an extension reaching Miami International Airport. The number of buses is about the same now as it was then."

Here's a little more of Dorschner's reporting. You can read the entire Biscayne Times piece by clicking here.
Promises quickly collapsed. In 1985, a year after the system opened, I wrote a cover story for the Herald’s Tropic magazine titled “Metrofail,” remembered mostly for its cover of white circus elephants walking in a line along an elevated track. After a year, Metrorail was carrying just 20,000 riders, one-tenth of projections. Operating costs were pushing the county deep into the red.

A half-dozen academic transportation experts I talked to at the time said the county would have been better off with a vastly expanded bus system running in express lanes; rail, they maintained, didn’t fit Miami’s urban sprawl. Many noted that the ridership was far heavier on the south end, favoring the white suburbanites going downtown, and was much sparser in the blue-collar areas of black Liberty City and Hispanic Hialeah. A Harvard transportation professor called Metrorail “the laughingstock of the nation.”

As deficits mounted, voters were asked three times in the 1990s to approve a penny sales tax for transit. The rejections were overwhelming.

In 2002, county Mayor Alex Penelas tried again. He lowered the request to a half-penny and increased promises, not only for huge expansions of Metrorail and buses, but also for free rides for seniors on all transit and no charges for anyone on the downtown Metromover. In addition, each city in the county would get a slice of the half-penny, with allotments based on population. Sweetening the pie even further, the referendum promised the tax would finance “improving major neighborhood roads and highways.” This time the measure passed overwhelmingly.

Six years later, the Herald’s Larry Lebowitz wrote that much of the half-penny had gone to relieving operating deficits, adding 1000 transit jobs, and spending $2 million for new office furniture.

“At the heart of the matter,” Lebowitz wrote, “the 2002 campaign avoided any mention of chronic financial problems that had plagued the transit agency, and it promised far more improvements than the tax could possibly deliver.”

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