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South Dade Rapid Bus System Gets Thumbs Up To Start Construction

south_dade_rapid_transit_bus.jpeg
Courtesy Miami-Dade County
A rendering of a planned bus stop for South Dade's bus rapid transit project. The county commission unanimously agreed to start construction on the project this week.

According to the timeline put together by Miami-Dade County, the bus rapid transit system could be up and running within two years time.

In the early 2000s, residents of South Miami-Dade County were promised a billion-dollar extension of the Metrorail to Florida City as part of the half-penny transit tax plan brought about by former Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas.

That project won’t be happening. But after decades of wrangling and debate, South Dade will get a modern bus rapid transit system, connecting the Dadeland South Metrorail station to Florida City.

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Earlier this week the Miami-Dade county commission unanimously voted to start construction on the project.

“People are looking for results. Don’t tell me about your plans. Show me what the results of those plans are, I’d like to see them,” said Peter England, the executive director of the Economic Development Council of South Dade.

Like many others, England said he was long hopeful that the county would run the promised Metrorail extension to South Dade.

“The passenger numbers at this point don’t seem to dictate heavy or light rail. But frankly we’re excited about BRT as an immediate alternative,” he said.

According to the timeline put together by the county, the bus rapid transit system could be up and running within two years time. The system will create new air-conditioned bus stops for people using the modern buses, and will include vehicle traffic guardrails that will help the buses bypass red lights and keep them moving quickly. The system will utilize dedicated bus lanes that are already in existence, keeping the buses separated from passenger vehicles.

The county’s plans will allow the entire system to be converted into light rail if demand and ridership makes it worthwhile down the road.

After struggling for years to find funding for the South Dade transit project, the federal government has put forth $100 million for the bus rapid transit project, and the state has put forth another $100 million. The county will foot the remaining $100 million of the projected $300 million project.

The project is a large part of the legacy of former Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who introduced the bus rapid transit plan in 2018. Gimenez now represents many parts of South Dade as a Republican U.S. congressman. Current Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava voted against the project when she was a commissioner representing South Dade, but has resisted calls to revise the plan for fear of delaying the project even further.

“The local population is going to have to warm up to it but once they see what they’ve got, once they fully appreciate what the system is and what it can do. The speed is really going to be no different than rail,” England said.

The bus rapid transit system will also help attract more job creators into South Dade itself, according to England. The region has some of the cheapest real estate in Miami-Dade County, and a large workforce.

Amazon has already received approval to construct its largest distribution center in Florida in Homestead. And just this week, members of the government agency Space Florida visited to explore South Dade as a place of future operations, said England.

“We need a solution for transit riders that’s going to happen now, in two or three years, and not something that is going to happen 10 to 15 years down the line."
Kevin Amézaga, president and executive director of the Miami Riders Alliance

The population of South Dade has exploded since the late 1990s, and currently about 600,000 people live south of Kendall Drive — Southwest 88th Street — he added. About 70% of them travel north for work almost every day, clogging up the roadways and making traffic one of the biggest issues for South Miami-Dade.

“We have created a county system which effectively maroons our workforce as far from the jobs as possible, and in the interim provides them no realistic way to get to work except in their car,” said Anna Hochkammer, a council member for the village of Pinecrest. “BRT is the first real change.”

Pinecrest is on the northern end of what is considered South Dade. That makes the situation there less acute than deeper in South Dade, but the daily traffic running south to north still impacts the area, said Hochkammer.

“The farther south you get the higher the stakes are, and the greater the need,” said Hochkammer. “Our interest in this is really that we recognize transit is a regional issue, and we can’t be NIMBY [not-in-my-backyard] about it. We have to work together as a region.”

County Commissioner Kionne McGhee, who represents large parts of South Dade, recently called to postpone moving forward with the bus rapid transit system and instead called to further study a full Metrorail expansion. But after facing pushback that further studies could delay any project for years more and jeopardize the federal and state funding that has already been received, even McGhee voted to move forward with the project.

Kevin Amézaga is the president and executive director of the Miami Riders Alliance, a group that was started to represent the interests of commuters themselves across Miami-Dade County. He said perhaps the most important thing about the commission giving the thumbs up to start construction is how fast the results are expected.

“We need a solution for transit riders that’s going to happen now, in two or three years, and not something that is going to happen 10 to 15 years down the line,” said Amézaga. “That’s why we support bus rapid transit, because we know it’s going to bring relief to transit riders and not just people who might ride rail — but people who will ride bus rapid transit.”