Miami-Dade mayor Carlos Gimenez emphasized on Thursday that the county cannot afford to extend the Metrorail south and should instead upgrade the South Dade busway.
Gimenez joined Sundial to discuss how the county should address traffic and improve mass-transit in South Dade. The Miami-Dade Transportation Planning Organization deferred a vote on the matter at a meeting last month after no clear agreement was reached.
Mayors and elected officials from South Dade, including Rep. Kionne McGhee, have called for Miami-Dade to fulfill what they say is a years-long promise to extend the Metrorail south. They say the county promised the extension when it approved a one percent transportation tax in 2002.
But Gimenez says installing a bus rapid transit system is a more cost-effective option than the extension, which will cost more than $1 billion and could eat up the county's budget for other transit improvements. The upgrade will feature new buses designed for group boarding and rail-like crossing arms that will let buses speed through intersections the way trains do.
South Dade also does not have enough ridership to justify the Metrorail extension, Gimenez says. He would be open to the Metrorail extension in the future if the new bus upgrade increases ridership.
WLRN: So you're trying to convince people that rail is not the answer, at least not right now, and that it would be beneficial for Miami to invest in bus rapid transit. When did you decide it was a good time to move to that?
Gimenez: The bus rapid transit option actually was the local preferred option back in 2007. So this is not something that's brand new. The bus rapid transit has been around for a long time. In order for us to put rail all the way down to Florida City, it's well over a billion dollars. And the cost of maintaining and operating that rail system is two times to three times the cost of bus rapid transit. The problem with bus rapid transit is the word bus and people have this connotation of what a bus is and therefore people may think that we're putting lipstick on a bus and that's what we're calling bus rapid transit. And that's not it at all.
So what is bus rapid transit then?
Bus rapid transit that we want to create is you build stations like rail. You go in and you prepay boarding like rail. You're on a platform like rail. When the vehicle comes, it opens up the doors on the side like rail. People get out. People get inside. It's going to look very much like a train. And then when it comes to intersections, guard gates go down and you actually have preemption with these vehicles just like rail. The only difference is that you don't have steel tracks and you don't have steel wheels. It's much more flexible. It will get you there just as quickly as a train.
In a recent op-ed piece in the Miami Herald, you talked about using this bus rapid transit system until there is sufficient ridership to justify the cost of extending rail. What does that sufficient ridership look like to you?
Probably 35-40,000 boardings a day would be sufficient to begin the conversation. The problem was South Dade. They don't have the density that you have in other parts of the county. People say, "Well hey you're going away from rail." I would love to activate commuter rail on the northeast corridor. The rail is already there. Bright Line is already operating passenger rail there. That would make sense for us because we don't have to invest so much money in the infrastructure to actually activate that with rail. So it's not that I don't like rail. Every different corridor may have a different modality—that means what kind of technology are going to use to get people from point A to point B. They're not all the same. It won't all be bus rapid transit. It won't all be rail. It will be a combination of a bunch of different things.
This goes back to 2002 when there was that half cent tax to pay for increased transit. There was a promise for more rail. What happened to the money and why are we still having this debate 15+ years later?
Because the money was never sufficient to do what the people thought it was going to do. I wasn't there in 2002 to make any promises. I can just tell you what we have right now. We need to do things now -- things that we can afford. If in fact we put rail all the way down to South Dade as some people want, they will be taking and gobbling up something like 73 percent of all the money that's available for transit in the next 40 years. That to me is irresponsible as mayor of Miami-Dade County. If we do bus rapid transit, it takes 12 percent of the money that will be available for the next 30 40 years.
What about forming a private-public partnership to help pay for the extension?
Here's the other thing that frustrates me. Do you really think that a private company is going to come in here, invest billions of dollars and then not expect to get their money back and make a profit. Ludicrous. A private company is going to want a return on investment.