South Miami-Dade residents will have to wait a little longer for the county to decide how it will improve the South Dade Transitway Corridor.
The county's Transportation Planning Organization delayed a vote Thursday on whether to upgrade the South Dade busway or instead consider extending the Metrorail south as part of Miami-Dade's SMART plan. The board's chair Esteban Bovo Jr. accepted a delay until August 30 after the contentious meeting continued for several hours with no clear agreement reached.
The decision underscores the lack of consensus on the issue and continues years-long uncertainty about whether the county will agree to the Metrorail extension.
"What you saw today is there's still a lot of doubt about whether the county and county staff can fulfill what's it's talking about," Bovo Jr. said. "I want to see something happen, but I can understand why my colleagues have a lot of hesitation on this item."
Mayor Carlos Gimenez pitched the "bus rapid transit system" along the corridor as a cost-effective alternative to the extension. The system will feature new buses designed for group boarding, stations with permanent structures for shade and ticket kiosks to allow riders to pay in advance. Rail-like crossing arms will also let buses speed through intersections like trains.
Gimenez's administration claimed the express buses would match the 45 minutes it would take the Metrorail to travel to new South Dade stations.
If the board approves the system when it votes on August 30, the county could then apply for federal funding for the project.
But mayors and other elected officials from South Dade demanded that the county instead fulfill what they called a years-long promise to extend the Metrorail system and address traffic.
Some pointed out that the county promised the extension when voters approved a one percent transportation tax in 2002. In a campaign ad during his 2016 reelection bid, Gimenez also spoke about the SMART plan and the need for more trains.
During the public comment period, Deltravis Williams spoke in support of the Metrorail, telling commissioners they had enough time "to raise the money." State Rep. Kionne McGhee added that "anything short of rail is an act of betrayal."
The county's lack of action on the extension since 2002 was the focus throughout the hours-long meeting. Board members criticized former county officials for not fulfilling past commitments and demanded that the board do something to improve transit along the South Dade corridor.
But some members were concerned about funding the Metrorail extension.
The rapid bus system is projected to cost $243 million and carry an estimated 20,000 riders. Although the Metrorail extension would carry 40,000 riders, it would cost $1.3 billion and eat up the county's budget for other transit improvements. Miami-Dade would spend about another $67 million per year to maintain and operate it.
Supporters of the rapid transit plan have also argued that the Metrorail extension is unlikely to receive federal funding because the South Dade corridor is too rural and does not have enough ridership.
Bovo Jr., a vocal supporter of rail, said the rapid transit plan could increase ridership. As soon as ridership hits a certain point, he said, the county should then move forward with the extension.
"I don't agree with the mayor on 80 percent of this technology garbage," he said, referring to the rapid transit system. "For me to get to this point was not easy. I see this as an initial statement, a down-payment."
But commissioner Daniella Levine Cava, who represents part of South Dade, said the rapid transit system is not necessary. New smart traffic signals that give buses priority along the South Dade busway are enough to improve ridership, she said.
"If we have a serious commitment to improve the current transit system, to make it more desirable, more efficient, more people will use it, we'll build ridership and have a better case to make once we've completed the study for the rail," she said.
She said the county should rely on bonds to help pay for the extension, though Bovo Jr. noted there have been no investment offers yet from the private sector.
Following the meeting, Gimenez said he was frustrated about the delay. But he is confident the board will vote for the bus rapid transit system on August 30.
"I think we were heading for approval," he said. "We're gonna be okay at the end."