It's 3:45 p.m. on a Friday and Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez is about to run late. He’s supposed to go from his office at the Stephen P. Clark Center in downtown Miami to Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens for an El Clásico event. It’s about 14 miles. An aide says the mayor has half an hour and I-95 “is a parking lot.”
It’s a little ironic because the mayor has gotten a lot of questions recently about the county’s plan for reducing traffic by improving public transit. In its original form, the SMART (Strategic Miami Area Rapid Transit Plan) involved building light rail along six high-traffic “corridors” traversing the county. But Gimenez has recently said the county can’t afford the estimated $3.3 billion or more in construction costs.
So he’s instead recommending rapid transit buses because “you don’t have to build all that massive infrastructure that’s required of trains and rail.”
The switch has frustrated some Miami-Dade residents and leaders who say the county's shirking an expansion of the Metrorail system for which they authorized a sales tax increase way back in 2002.
But Gimenez says times have changed and these aren’t exhaust-spewing, stop-every-block kind of buses.
“I know your listeners can’t see this, but is it a train or a bus?” Gimenez asks. On his smartphone, he’s got an article with a picture of what looks like a sleek, bright green high-speed train. It has several cars, sliding doors and a capacity of 307 passengers.
But like a bus, it runs on roads, has rubber tires and a driver. It’s battery-powered and guided by sensors that detect the dimensions of the road. Gimenez says it would drive in specially designated, no-car traffic lanes and get automatic green lights.
“It operates just like a train,” he says. “For all intents and purposes, the passenger doesn’t know it’s not a train.”
Gimenez says it would also have climate-controlled stations where passengers would pre-pay for their tickets.
This “virtual train” debuted in China in June. Gimenez says the county’s reaching out to the manufacturer. He says he thinks the county could have this rapid transit system in place along at least one of the corridors in three years.
He’s targeting the north corridor (Martin Luther King, Jr. Metrorail Station to Northwest 215th Street) and the south corridor (Dadeland South Metorail Station to Florida City) first and says the next steps there are to acquire the rights-of-way. He says buying the rights-of-way and installing the virtual trains could be done within the county’s $534 million budget for the north and south corridors.
For those whose hearts are set on light-rail trains, the mayor says there’s still going to be one: along the northeast corridor on existing tracks from downtown Miami to Aventura.