Time for Miami to Revamp its Public Transportation System

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.

miamitraffic

A typical day on the Miami freeway

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.

Metro Light

Stunning in both its breadth and complexity

Stunning in both its breadth and complexity

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.

By comparison....

By comparison…. I give you Washington DC

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.

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8 thoughts on “Time for Miami to Revamp its Public Transportation System

  1. I think that it is also worth pointing out the amazingly sad fact that FIU, the 8th largest university in the country with almost 50000 students (almost all of whom live off campus and commute to campus each day), is not connected to the rail system. I am curious if any of the other larger universities (Arizona State University, University of Central Florida, Ohio State University—Columbus, Texas A&M University—College Station, Pennsylvania State University—University Park, University of Texas—Austin, Michigan State University) offer such poor access to public transportation?

    • The only one of these schools I’ve been to is Texas A&M when I was applying for undergrad. I’m not sure how connected it is, since College Station is its own city out, more or less, in the middle of nowhere. From what I remember, Texas A&M was a city unto itself. I’d have to look into the other ones to find out. I know that Maryland has its own metro stop and offers free shuttle buses between the metro stop and campus (which sneaky non-students can use).

    • I also wonder if public transportation is an issue that FIU should throw its weight behind. For example, the University of Miami is connected to the metrorail, no doubt due to heavy lobbying on UM’s part. In my experience, FIU doesn’t appear to be recognized as a ‘good neighbor’, mostly because people’s experience is limited to FIU trying to turn neighborhoods into highways and tear down bike paths and nature preserves (which, thankfully, has thus far failed due to intense resistance from citizens, politicians, and FIU students themselves). Perhaps if FIU’s administration, and to some extent faculty, advocated better public transportation, either through lobbying, research, outreach, etc., Miami’s transportation system could improve. I have no doubt that FIU can conduct traffic studies that improve red-light timing and optimize bus routes (sounds like a great Master’s project for someone looking for a degree in civil engineering/planning). I know that other universities have done this. My alma mater, U of Richmond, pushed back against the city trying to remove the campus bus stop because a large portion of the staff (and some faculty) have no other means of transportation to work.

    • I’ve read similar plans for the rail system that have existed ever since construction began. I think the original plan was to have four or five lines, of which one was built, and then the FTA pulled funding essentially removing the additional lines from consideration.

      It doesn’t appear that the FTA has changed its mind. This report has a paragraph:

      “The Federal Transit Administration (FTA), after 10 years of participating in the New Starts process, had not yet entered into negotiations for a Full Funding Grant Agreement for the North Corridor after MDTs applications of 2007, 2008 and 2009 received a Medium Low rating from the FTA primarily because of an insufficient financial plan. It should be noted, any project receiving below Medium rating will not be recommended by the FTA for federal funding. The FTA published comments in 2010 that it would remove the project from the New Starts program if a robust financial plan was not provided, and subsequently communicated removal by FTA would be viewed as a negative action and could potentially affect future federal funding.”

      That is, FTA isn’t convinced MDT’s financial plan is on the level and won’t consider the proposal and more or less said ‘stop submitting proposals unless you overhaul the financial plan”. This isn’t new. I have a copy of the FTA’s report on the NW 27th St. extension proposal from 2003:

      “Although FTA is reporting MDTAs ridership forecasts for the project above, FTA has concerns about their validity.In addition, the North Corridor Metrorail Extension capital cost increased from $731.9 million to $872.9 million because of the inclusion of the purchase of 66 rail vehicles that were not included in previous years. FTA is concerned about the high number of rail vehicles proposed and has indicated to MDTA that the need for these cars will be examined closely”

      This was in 2003, and it doesn’t sound like the situation has improved. Especially because the FTA just weighed in and said the county mishandled the contract for new train cars.

  2. I found your article while doing research on Miami’s corrupt and inefficient authority that oversees the MDT. Not only does Miami have the issues you mentioned above it also has no control over its operators who chose when to be on schedule or be late taking advantage of the “better late than early policy for bus operations….. try submitting this article to News Times’ the Herald is corrupt….

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