Lackluster Transportation in the Magic City
Miami-Dade suffers from some of the worst driving conditions in the United States. Numerous bottlenecks along I-95, the only traffic corridor connecting metropolitan South Florida, bring traffic to a standstill at nearly all hours of the day. Traffic analysts at INRIX consistently rank among the top 15 most congested cities in the U.S. Congestion is only part of the issue, however. The Florida stretch of I-95 incurs more fatalities per year than any other interstate segment in the country. Many of these fatalities occur in Miami-Dade, which 242 traffic-related deaths in 2011, more than any other Florida county. Local troopers blame driver distraction (e.g. texting) coupled with aggressive driving. Meanwhile, Florida legislature will not prohibit texting while driving in any meaningful way; the recent anti-texting law treats texting as a ‘secondary offence’, punishable only if the driver has already been pulled over for another offence. Given these factors, being off the road in Miami is far better, and safer, than being on it.
Unfortunately, Miami provides one of the worst public transportation systems of any major metropolitan area in the U.S. Even some cities in South America, like Bogata, Colombia, have more comprehensive public transportation (and bike lanes). Numerous Miami-Dade Transit (MDT) websites extoll the virtues of public transportation in the greater Miami area. To the uninformed, these websites can be deceptive.
The MDT bus system is chaotic and woefully inefficient. A trip that takes 20 minutes by car requires over two hours, at best, in the MDT bus system. One prime is example is the route between Coconut Grove and FIU’s main campus on 8th St. In part, this is because there are bus stops every other block. Contrast this with efficient busing in Houston, Washington, or even Bogata, where pick-up locations are further apart and dedicated bus lanes included along many heavily trafficked routes. In those cities, transfers among routes operate efficiently, providing timely access to nearly anywhere in the city. Despite these inefficiencies, last year the federal government donated $10 million to upgrade MDT’s bus fleet with hybrid buses. With brand new buses, MDT should (re)organize routes, making buses a viable transport option for the numerous taxpayers in need of car-free alternatives.
Miami also has an extremely underdeveloped rail system. The MetroRail was completed in 1984, costing over $1 billion (the Federal Transit Authority (FTA) footed roughly 80% of the bill). For that sum, Miami received one rail line between South Miami, through downtown, and then west to Hialeah and Palmetto, with no stop at Miami International Airport. Whether an oversight or deliberately poor planning, it took 25 years to rectify this mistake. Although there are now two lines, Orange and Green, there is still but one track. There are no stops in South Beach, midtown, or north along the US 1 corridor for residents of North Miami, Aventura, and Hollywood. This accounts, in part, for the horrid congestion on I-95. Rail extensions were planned, but shelved when FTA withdrew financial support due to concerns over MDT’s estimates of cost as well as suspicion of government corruption.
Yet, MDT proclaims that 15% of Miami’s population (~70,000 passengers) pass through MetroRail turnstiles every weekday. This misleading percentage only holds when population estimates are restricted to the depopulated City of Miami metro area. This excludes Hialeah, Opa-Locka, Coral Gables, Doral, Miami Beach, North Miami, North Miami Beach, Kendall, South Miami, etc. Residents of all of these regions commute daily through the Miami metro area. Adding in the populations of these cities reduces the number to ~7%. National context is also important. Although 70,000 passengers per day sounds impressive, this number pales in comparison to daily light rail ridership in other major U.S. cities: New York City (5.4 million), Washington D.C. and Chicago (790,000), San Francisco (375,000). Comparatively, the Miami MetroRail is sadly underused.
Can Miami Revamp its Public Transportation System?
Yes. City officials are reexamining a possible ‘Bay Link’ rail line to South Beach. The Bay Link had been considered in the early 2000s, but the issue died in 2004. This line would connect tourists with South Beach directly from the airport and, if coupled with rail extensions to other areas of metropolitan South Florida, remove numerous drunk drivers from the freeways. In addition, public support for rail lines is swelling. Wynwood, a burgeoning neighborhood, created an imaginary ‘Purple Line’ stop to gather support for MetroRail expansion.
Can Miami, and MDT, make it work? Possibly. Voters approved a half-penny tax increase a decade ago to fund MDT expansion. These funds paid for the new Orange line stop at the airport. Unfortunately, progress has been slow and taxpayers are losing faith in city officials to address these problems. The FTA withdrew funding for the MetroRail amid speculation of corruption and misappropriations. A continuing scandal, in which the FTA recently ruled that county officials illegally handled a contract for new rail cars, will not assuage the FTAs concerns and bring back federal funding. One viable option is a Private-Public Partnership (PPP), wherein private investors assume much of the cost, and risk, of infrastructure improvements. PPP programs are taking off around the U.S., including South Florida. The current renovation of the 826-836 exchange in one example, as is the new Port of Miami Tunnel. The question is whether MDT can find investors willing to gamble on a greater Miami MetroRail in a city notorious for publics works projects being far over budget and way behind schedule. Then again, perhaps the risks associated with private investment is the remedy to keep construction costs low and on time. Can Miami make a rail line work?
I certainly hope so, for everyone’s sake.
Side note: I submitted a short version of this as an opinion letter to the Miami Herald, but I’ve not heard back.