A better bus system is coming to South Miami-Dade. But according to a group of South-Dade leaders, it’s too little too late. Homestead, Palmetto Bay and a few other cities have joined forces to revolt against the bus system in favor of a light-rail system.
They’ve drafted an agreement requiring county transportation officials to persuade the Metropolitan Planning Organization to fund a study on light-rail.
We recently spoke with the mayor of Palmetto Bay, Eugene Flinn, about what forced these leaders to ban together.
What brought about this revolt among the South Dade mayors?
We finally recognized that we have to do mass transit. Traffic is unbearable throughout our cities. People are beginning to threaten to sell their homes and move.
What do you think are the major problems that people are dealing with?
Just the continued push of the development down south. The south area is the last frontier where there's virgin land to be developed. There's a lot of pressure on the existing roads that just are not able to meet current standards. So three, four, five years from now, it's going to collapse.
You guys held a town hall on Wednesday to discuss the system. What feedback did you get from the community?
Well there were some people that want a less expensive option, but most people want the rail and want it now. I was pleasantly surprised by how many people are aware of the issue and are ready to spend what it's going to take to resolve the traffic situation. There's no cheap option here.
Did they give any stories or examples of what they go through and why this would be the best option for South Dade?
Well, everybody is under the impression that we've got crumbs down here in the south area. We've paid $400 million, I believe is the number, in regards to what we've paid for our half cent sales tax. Metrorail was really supposed to go down this far. To just offer up buses when the bus service has seen the ridership suppressed from lack of support for it all these years? It was surprising the number of people who looked the county representatives in the eye and said, ‘We don't trust you.'
And we know rail is going to be there, we know that rail will have the capacity, we know that rail will be maintained. They can't take rail off the tracks and move it like they can with a bus. They're talking now about giving us what everybody expected when they first installed the busway. It's too late. We don't have confidence. We need to go with the solution that’s going to address the current issue, not one that would have possibly managed the situation 10 years ago.
What do you see for South Dade's transit future?
Well, I think people are ready to embrace it. The buses that are in there now are largely at capacity. This morning coming back from the gym, there were three buses that passed me. This shows you, when they've got three buses all on one line, let's face it. That's one rail car or even four buses would be a rail car going by. There are people standing in those buses. It's at capacity now.
They would fill more seats the more buses they have. But we are in crisis stage down here. People want to give up their cars. People are tired of spending an hour and a half to get from North Dade to home. In fact, it's even longer than that. Too many people are cutting through neighborhoods because U.S. 1 is no longer functioning as a major north-south traffic transit corridor.
In the deal you all drafted, you said you don’t want the bigger buses?
Well we recognize that there's got to be a transitional period. So we're looking at the bus as not “bus rapid transit” but “transitional rapid transit” to continue to build the ridership and attract the federal dollars here. When they're already at 16,000 riders a day, that's already in the range for existing rail systems in other areas. If they had more buses they'd have even more people.
The ridership is there. It's just that the people are not being given enough seats. My biggest problem when I ride the bus lanes is I don't remember the last time I was able to sit down in a bus because I've always given up my seat to somebody else. I think this area is deserving of a transit system that's going to resolve the problem.
I think that the ridership is here. We're not trying to build a transit system to nowhere. We're trying to build a transit system for a mass group of public that is looking for a better alternative than sitting in their car for hours. The environmental factors are big too. We have to recognize rolling all these buses, even if they're diesel electric hybrids, still puts a much bigger carbon footprint out there than the electric rail system.
We have to be realistic. It's going to take a reasonable sum of dollars to provide the service it needs to be provided. They've been going cheap for far too long down here and people are suffering. We're paying for it in so many other ways. Our cities are paying for it in the cost of traffic calming that we have to put through which goes through our city taxes, with loss of productivity because people are spending hours commuting a distance that when they bought their homes they did not reasonably anticipate was going to take that long to get to work. People as hard as they work, as hard as their kids work, would like to spend more time with their family than just sitting on the asphalt driving home. If you can even say “driving” home, but it almost feels like you’re just sitting in a parking lot waiting for your turn to drive.
What do you hope is the outcome of all this?
I look forward to the day when we can actually leave our cars behind and really move around the place. It's more than just getting down the road. I would love to be able to go to the beach and not have to worry about a place to park. I’d love to take the Metrorail downtown. It's more than just the fact that I can look out the window and see all those poor people out there -- and when I say poor, I mean it's sad that they're sitting there in that traffic when I'm able to get off the Metrorail and I just walk a short distance to where I need to go. I don't want to have to worry about parking or paying up to $12 to park. I think it's time that we properly invest and make this a world-class city that we know it can be.