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How Miami-Dade's Dreams Of Light Rail Look A Lot Like Its Past

Once again, Miami-Dade County is studying whether a light-rail train from mainland Miami to the beach would actually work.

Mayor Carlos Gimenez and the county’s metropolitan planning organization think it could be a solution to the traffic problems of South Beach. If traffic gets worse, Gimenez has said it will “kill the tourism industry.”  

A History Of Light Rail

But if you lived in Miami between 1925 and 1935, you may be experiencing a feeling of déjà vu. Back then, Miami-Dade actually used have a fairly extensive, electric trolley system that linked Miami and Miami Beach.

So, what happened? We asked Paul George, a historian for both Miami-Dade College and History Miami.

WLRN: When exactly was the originally trolley system built?

George: The first trolley system was a very modest system that ran a little more than a block in the latter part of the first decade of the 20th Century. Miami was a brand new city. It was only incorporated in 1896 and you had a [trolley] system by 1908, 1909. It didn’t make it. Then, we had in this young city, from about 1917 when it started operating until 1940, a fairly extensive trolley system. 

Credit Laz Gamio/Miami Herald

WLRN: What happened to the trolleys, why don’t we see them anymore?

George: I really think that the movers and shakers of the community, meaning the city’s elected leadership and administration, decided that they were too slow moving, they were fixed in where they could go, and now there were buses, and now there were lots of cars and these were relics of the past.

WLRN: It’s interesting that trolleys were seen as old fashioned at that time and now in this era we want to go back to trolleys and light rail. Was there any effort by the car industry to do away with or discourage trolleys? Or was it an economic decision too?

George: That was a national effort. Automobile manufacturers saw public transportation and trolleys... as a big competitor. If you could maybe eliminate (the competition), it might force more people to go to cars and thus they would sell more cars. That seemed to be a common problem all over the country. Now, I have not seen any documentation of that regarding Miami. But, I’ve read about Los Angeles, and there was a tremendous influence on the part of automobile manufacturers on Los Angeles to do away with their trolley system.

Now, Miami more so than a lot of cities its size did quickly embrace the automobile. So we probably had a higher percentage of car owners say in 1940 than a lot of mid-sized cities. And it’s all I think because we were a new city, people came from other places, many drove down so they already had cars to begin with… it was just kind of a different animal. We’ve been built around the car.

Remembering Bay Link

The cost for Miami-Dade's $325,000, nine-month “Beach Corridor Transit Connection Study” is being divided between six state and local agencies and municipalities. The study comes almost a decade after a similar proposal called "Bay Link," which failed due to concerns over money and other transportation priorities.