Those of us who find solace on Twitter amongst our fellow refugees of Miami Dade Transit are brought together on the social media platform by the tireless retweets of @FixMetroMDT, who provides a vital public service to all who feel the pain of using our terrible system by amplifying our endless stream of wholly justified complaints and frustrations day after day, hour by hour.
On the bitterly-cold morning of January 21, 2020, the operation of the Metrorail was halted by an unspecified “technical difficulty”, that disrupted the morning commute of thousands of people, who were left dangerously stranded on packed train platforms.
Such incidents are familiar to many residents of Miami-Dade County and had become a near-weekly occurrence not too long ago. But, they had abated somewhat over the course of 2019. Yesterday, however, @FixMetroMDT had its hands full with the furious and unrelenting tweets with graphic detail of the transit disaster unfolding.
The sheer scope and impact of the delay coupled with the fact that we are in an election year for County Mayor, the seat currently occupied by the very man upon whose shoulders our present-day transit catastrophe falls, helped unleash a Twitter storm of epic proportions.
Even the elusive Transit Director, Alice Bravo, was spotted by Pulitzer prize winning journalist, Elaine de Valle, in the midst of the urban calamity browsing for some breakfast carbs instead of addressing the public, as most public officials in her position are expected to do.
At some point, the discussion on Twitter always comes down to the infamous PTP or Public Transportation Plan, which our local leaders promised to implement in exchange for $17 Billion dollars in taxes to be collected through a half-penny tax. The sordid details of how that money was and continues to be misspent is now part of sad, perpetual lament
When @FixMetroMDT broached the subject, a follower included a hashtag in his response that should spread like wildfire in the coming months, because it not only captures the important question raised by @FixMetroMDT about everything that’s transpired in the world and our lives since the debut of the PTP, but, in light of Carlos Gimenez’ purported run for Congress and the aspiring Mayoral candidates, it can help galvanize our voices and effectively express how imperative it is to fix our failing transit system.
FaceBook, uber, Slack, and Instacart weren’t even founded yet #SincePTP
A lot has happened in the world during this time. Amazing, world-changing events and breakthroughs that contrasts so starkly against our sputtering, stagnant and aging transit system, our leadership should hang their heads in shame.
Each year #SincePTP:
2002 – An entire continent got new money and the PTP came into existence
An enormous undertaking that would span the next few years, Europe’s new currency started circulating throughout the old continent on January 1st, 2002 with the issuance of 45.6 billion in freshly minted coins and printed notes. Perhaps this motivated our dear leaders in Miami to look for new money themselves.
2003 – The human genome was mapped and everything seems on track
An international team of researchers embarked on the daunting task of mapping and sequencing the entire human gene profile. The Genome Project was launched in 1999, the project was successfully completed in April of 2003. Four short years to achieve this groundbreaking accomplishment. Why wouldn’t we expect to have new Metrorail lines in Miami soon?
2004 – The largest social media platform was created. Are we still friends?
The social media phenomenon called Facebook, which currently boasts more followers than Christianity, opened its virtual doors in 2004. This is when everybody got distracted, but it was still early and plenty of digital sheep in the barn, it seemed.
2005 – HIV was cured. Yeah, Ok
Andrew Stimpson, the first medically documented case of HIV, baffled the scientific community when tests determined that he was free of the disease and declared to be cured of HIV in 2005. Suffice it to say, that we were also a little skeptical by now after paying into the PTP for four years and also coming back negative.
2006 – Pluto was demoted, we got Twitter and bus cuts?
Pluto had been considered a planet in our solar system for more than 70 years. In 2006, a few luminaries in the field of astronomy came to the conclusion it should no longer be included as such. A few days later, Jack Dorsey founded Twitter and MDT would soon rue the day. For now, Miami Dade Transit began announcing the first of several service cuts.
2007 – London to Paris in 2 Hours and 15 minutes
A massive feat of engineering connecting the British Isles to continental Europe, nicknamed the Chunnel, had been built in 1994. But, in 2007, a high-speed rail link was built to take passengers directly from London to the underwater tunnel at 186 mph. Tea with the Queen at 5 o’clock and a nightcap in Montparnasse. Miami completed its “study” of the Miami Trolley. Ugh.
2008 – A revolution in the making and excuses for the taking
A mysterious figure by the name of Satoshi Nakamoto publishes the Bitcoin whitepaper and takes the world by storm with his peer-to-peer cryptocurrency that will change the way currency works. Meanwhile the financial crisis gives Miami Dade officials all the excuses they will use in the coming years to deflect responsibility for the expansion of transit.
2009 – Barack Obama becomes POTUS and now it’s all just politics
Obama, the first black President, was also the first communist president. At least, that’s what the Cuban community in Miami believed. Wealthy, privileged people in Coral Gables actually took to the streets with signs and petitions to protest his healthcare reforms. The same people who oppose bike lanes in that neighborhood.
2010 – Germany pays the last of the reparations owed for WWI. Why are we still paying?
World War One ended in 1918. It took the Germans almost one hundred years to pay off the punitive debt it incurred as the loser of that terrible war. Did we, the residents of Miami Dade, lose a war? Why have we been paying into the PTP for eight years and still have nothing to show for it?
2011 – Kick the cartels and the politicians out
The townspeople of Cherán, Michoacán in Mexico decided enough was enough and took matters into their own hands. They organized and armed themselves, and told the drug cartels, the loggers who worked for them and the politicians who leached off everyone to GTFO. Today, they live in peace. Hint, hint.
2012 – Parallel universes and more perks for the tourism industry
The Higgs Boson particle is discovered by physicists at the CERN Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, proving the Big Bang theory of the origins of the universe. In an equally stunning development, the Metrorail extension to Miami International Airport is completed. Just like the Higgs Boson, it changes nothing for the average resident of Miami.
2013 – 3D-printed body parts and more service cuts
Scientists print a human ear out of collagen at Cornell University, marking the first time living cells have been used in 3D printing technology and auguring a new frontier for medical science. Miami Dade County can’t print a decent bus schedule.
2014 – The tallest building in the Western hemisphere and snowbirds of a feather
One World Trade Center, built upon the ashes of the twin towers, was completed at a cost of $3.9 Billion when it was all said and done. The NY Port Authority had raised bridge tolls by 56% to cover its $1 Billion-dollar commitment to the project, but took a page out of the PTP scam and used the funds to pay for upgrades to the Interstate Transportation Network, instead.
2015 – A US Embassy in Cuba but still no train to Homestead, Florida
The resumption of diplomatic ties between Cuba and the United States was an historic event. More than 50 years had elapsed since President Eisenhower broke off relations after Fidel Castro took power; just a bit longer than the 47 years since the FEC eliminated all passenger services to South Dade.
2016 – A thousand-year-old feud resolved but we think we’re SMART
Catholic and Orthodox Churches, split since the year 1054, issue a joint declaration calling for the end to Christian persecution, wars and their millenarian schism. Meanwhile, in Miami, leaders come up with a new way to divide us and call it the SMART plan.
2017 – Saturn eats its young and we’re getting old waiting for a trolley
Thirteen years earlier, the Cassini-Huygens orbiter began its interplanetary mission and in 2017 it entered Saturn’s orbit never to leave it. It was the planned conclusion to its pioneering exploration through space. The only way to explore Miami is to get off the awful Miami Trolley and Uber to your destination.
2018 – Cloning primates in a lab might be our only hope
Chinese scientists successfully cloned monkeys at the Chinese Academy of Sciences Institute of Neuroscience. Not only does this pose serious ethical questions, but it also raises a disturbing possibility for Miami politicians. To wit, does this mean they will be replaced?
2019 – Half a billion trees because we can’t stand the heat and can’t leave the kitchen
This past year, the Republic of Ireland committed to planting 440 million trees to fight climate change. It will be part of a 30-year plan to achieve carbon-neutrality by 2050. Miami needs a 1-year plan to achieve moron-immunity.
DeDe Bradley had just left the Kwik Stop with one of her six children in tow. Minutes later she was pronounced dead at the scene of yet another hit-and-run on the streets of Miami-Dade County. All of her kids, including a newborn, were now orphans. The little one with her that evening had to witness his mother fly through the air seconds after she had saved his life, pulling him back from the oncoming vehicle.
“Have a heart”, Bradley’s aunt said into the news cameras, hoping the killer was watching. “Give yourself up.”, she went on. “Think of it if it was your mom or your kids or anything like that.”
These kinds of tragedies have become so commonplace in South Florida, that the appeals to a sense of decency, which often follow, seem cliché. A lack of empathy is made even more egregious by the leniency the law affords drivers in cases of vehicular homicide.
In March of 2018, Denise March and Carlos Rodriguez were killed by a “distracted” driver. Pleading No Contest, Nicole Vanderweit, was slapped with a miniscule $1,000 dollar fine and 120 hours of community service. But, the ultimate proof that we are living in an automotive dystopia was the fact that her license was suspended for a paltry six months.
The World Health Organization calculates that 1.25 million people are killed every year as a result of car accidents, and anywhere between 20 and 50 million more are maimed or injured. 40,000 of such fatalities happen in the U.S., on average – a number that has been exceeded 3 years in a row, placing it just under suicide as a leading cause of death.
Miami-Dade County has the distinction of being the car-accident capital of Florida, itself the most car-accident-prone state in the nation. But, the greatest risk is reserved for pedestrians who brave the asphalt in Miami, which has a Pedestrian Danger Index (PDI) of 182, a full 126 points higher than the national average, making us the most lethal place in the United States to take a stroll.
The deliberate evisceration of public transit by a cohort of municipal officials and constituents so hostile to quality of life, that even bicycles are deemed a threat, has made the problem exponentially worse.
Miami is a place designed for the automobile, not people. Instead of neighborhoods we have interminable rows of cookie-cutter homes prized for the size of their garages and the landscaping of their driveways.
Daily commutes of 20 miles or more are the norm and our homes are glorified rest stops where we park our cars while we eat and go to the bathroom. Raising a family in Miami is practically impossible without a vehicle. Parents will enter into legally-binding contracts with their children before the age of 16 when they co-sign for their first car.
Everything is set up to keep you driving. Good luck dating in Miami without a car. Your friends will stop calling you if you always need a ride somewhere. The bus? That’s for poor people. That’s what grandma use to take back in Cuba or whatever place this place is supposed to be so much better than. The third world. Get a car. Un Transportation, they’ll tell you.
With very few exceptions, Miamians fall in line. Enthusiastically, in most cases. They’ll develop an emotional attachment to their two-ton metal object. Years of subliminal conditioning from movies and peer groups will make the transition seamless; obvious, even.
The city, itself, starts to become more and more car-centric. Any vestiges of a traditional city past are destroyed and structures meant for the automobile take their place. Overtown, a once thriving community, was leveled to erect I-95 back in the 1960’s. Today, hardly anything remains in Miami that does not cater first to the car and second, if at all, to people.
What’s left is an inhospitable ode to consumerism. The ruins of city life have become fetishized by developers who swoop in and build fake, city-like enclaves over areas decimated by decades of economic stagnation in a process called “gentrification”.
Brickellistas in the Midst
Teeming with young professionals, multi-million-dollar high rise condos and a brand-spanking new luxury retail mall, the “financial” district of Miami features what is considered to be a vibrant social scene. Look more closely and what you’ll find is more akin to a mining town from the old West, albeit without the dirt floors and swankier bars.
In fact, boomtowns are the blueprint for the modern American city, which aren’t really cities at all. Like those ad-hoc settlements where miners and journeymen settled for a time, Brickell was built to extract the earnings of its residents through alcohol and marginal forms of entertainment during their off-hours. Mere blocks from Brickell, which is undergoing a new development phase, the store and restaurant-windows of the abandoned boom town gather dust.
Mana Construction signs hang from virtually every awning along Flagler Street in the heart of the city. The development company has been buying up property in Downtown for a few years now. A sort-of real estate futures play betting on the area’s projected revival. Ostensibly, the new Brightline terminal, along with the eventual completion of “Miami World Center” will produce the economic equivalent of a Narcan shot to the practically dead city core.
Meanwhile, the Main Public Library hosts more indigents than students, the stench of feces and urine will assault your senses on every other downtown block and the historic Olympia theater clings to life between vacant lots, mocking the rare passerby with a sign that welcomes them to the “New Downtown”.
The contrast between these two areas, separated by a 50-yard stretch of the Miami River couldn’t be starker. But, there is nothing fundamentally different. Neither hosts a community of any kind. They’re just two shopping malls. One reflects the fruits of a recent capital infusion; the other sits abandoned, awaiting the laundered billions to materialize.
No Place Like Home
In the throes of America’s Westward expansion, a man whose biggest claim to fame would come as a result of his allegorical criticism of the robber barons in “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”, L. Frank Baum was the editor of the Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer when he wrote a screed in support of the genocide of Native Americans just five days after the massacre at Wounded Knee:
The Pioneer has before declared that our only safety depends upon the total extermination of the Indians. Having wronged them for centuries we had better, in order to protect our civilization, follow it up by one more wrong and wipe those untamed and untamable creatures from the face of the earth.
It is in the insane words of a Dakota Territories Settler, that we find the seed of the modern American city, enshrining within it the mentality that gave birth to a certain demographic of the modern American citizenry. The persistent pattern of village razing and development at the center of so much of this nation’s economy, innocuously referred to as the boom and bust real estate cycle, is nothing more than a manifestation of the colonial mind.
Perhaps no other city in the world suffers from a higher frequency of these unnatural cycles than Miami. The frenetic pace of development, redevelopment, house flipping and everything in between makes us shed more skin than a python in the Everglades.
The chances of anyone in Miami growing up in the same house are quite low for the vast majority of the cash-poor and underpaid population. What’s more, the chances of growing into adulthood and being able to find your childhood home may be just as slim. In all likelihood, your memories have been trounced by bulldozers and replaced with a parking lot.
Nothing lasts half a generation in Miami. Everything is always new, unfamiliar and on the chopping block. For converts of the church of free market economics, this is the way things should be. Consumer demand should dictate life on earth. Continuity is a luxury only the very rich can afford. The rest of us should be left at the mercy of their tornado of market-induced indifference and pining for home like Dorothy in the middle of the desert.
The King has no Brakes
The automobile is ever present in the American experience, like a clue to the pathology of escapism embedded in so many other of its “pastimes”. Cloaked in phony euphemistic descriptors like “social mobility” and “freedom”, the car is driving us off the edge of a cliff.
In Miami, much of the public transit conversation centers around traffic and finding solutions to the inevitable gridlock of more and more cars on the street. But, the issue is much more profound. In a place like Miami, where car-ownership is a requirement for socio-economic viability in virtually every sense, our lack of public transit is an attack against human being-ness.
When you don’t have a choice but to own a car and drive it every single day, that is not freedom. That is not social mobility. It is the very opposite. Your freedom – in its most basic and real sense – has been subsumed under a paradigm that requires you to carry a massive financial burden and unacceptable levels of stress as you try to not die or kill someone on the road each time you get in a vehicle.
It’s no wonder people don’t stop after hitting a mother of six on her way out of the convenience store. Human beings are not supposed to be in a position where daily routine poses a fatal risk to other human beings. The driver who killed DeDe Bradley is as much a victim as she was. Nicole Vanderweit shouldn’t have to be in a position in which a momentary lapse of attention results in the death of two people.
But this is where we live. What do we call such a place? This isn’t a city. It’s some sort of big roadside motel. A place to crash, at best.
This article is dedicated to the memory of Alejandra Agredo, a budding transit activist who, perhaps, would have been free to pursue other dreams if we didn’t need someone like her in a place like this.
FILE PHOTO: Marcelo Claure, COO SoftBank Group, CEO SoftBank Latin America, CEO SoftBank International
2020 is Hindsight
Miami-Dade County Mayor, Carlos Gimenez, knew what he was doing when he posed on the Metrorail platform for his 2016 re-election campaign ad promising “More Rail” in bold, white letters. Only days removed from the $76 million-dollar gift he wrapped himself for the private luxury train company, soon-to-be renamed Virgin Trains, we can look back and see that “Metro” was purposefully omitted from the advertising copy.
The move was fraught with political blowback and could have cost him critical support in the Commission had he tried to ram this through earlier. Calculating as ever, he waited until the tail end of his term-limited reign to pull this stunt. As rumors swirl about where Gimenez plans to land after his disastrous tenure in County government, he leaves no doubt where he plans to butter his bread.
Brightline’s imminent re-branding is designed to take advantage of Richard Branson’s name recognition, despite the fact that the eccentric billionaire is only a minority shareholder in Brightline, itself owned by Florida East Coast Industries (FECI) and operated by All Aboard Florida, a subsidiary of the latter. All of these, in turn, are owned by Fortress Investment Group, which took more than $3 million dollars from then Governor Rick Scott and wife, Ann, under whose name the Scotts keep most of their largely undisclosed fortune.
Scott claims his multi-million dollar investment was made to a separate division of the New York-based Fortress in “an unrelated debt-financing fund” with no stake in the “success or failure” of Brightline. Scott’s word, of course, is worth less than the all-purpose bond paper in tray #1 of the leased copy machine at Fortress’ Manhattan headquarters. He was the one who killed Obama’s bullet train project, proposed by his Secretary of Transportation, Anthony Foxx, as he received $188,000 in campaign funds from the company that operates what is today the only privately-owned passenger rail system in the country. His Chief of Staff, at the time, had also been employed by FECI and Associated Press confirmed that Scott had discussed the rail project with the aid.
The Medicare fraudster, Scott, has moved on to the federal echelons of government, but has left behind mentees in South Florida who are looking after his “unrelated” investments. Carlos Gimenez has been the lead dog for the ransacking of public funds by private profits in Miami-Dade County, of which the Aventura Brightline station is just the latest example. He is not alone, however, and it is not a new phenomenon in Miami; a long-time stronghold of plantation-style politics. What is new are the players behind the scenes.
SoftBank acquired Fortress Investment Group in 2017 and has outright ownership or controlling shares in what seems like a thousand other concerns. The massive holding company is owned by Japanese multi-billionaire Masayoshi Son, who boasts of having a vision for his company extending 300 hundred years into the future. Megalomaniacal projections, aside, Son has amassed an impressive portfolio of investments in technology startups that span the globe, which are eventually rolled into SoftBank’s $100 billion “Vision Fund” when they are sufficiently mature. Once there, the goal is to fuse their operations into some sort of symbiotic, multinational tech-based empire.
The Vision Fund’s largest investor is none other than the Saudi Royal family, whose $45 billion-dollar contribution played a determining factor in a recent power tussle at the top of SoftBank’s executive hierarchy involving its two highest officers. Marcelo Claure, Son’s “hand-picked” COO for SoftBank Group, tried to insinuate himself into a lead operating role of the Vision Fund by displacing incumbent Rajeev Misra. But, his takeover bid was nixed by the Saudis whose relationship with the London-based banker and SoftBank board member, Misra, predates their investment.
Claure had put a team together called the SoftBank Operating Group, with expertise in “building companies, improving performance and managing key support tasks like government relations”, which he intended to bring with him to lead the “synergies” of companies in the Vision Fund. While Claure had Son’s blessing, he nonetheless saw his ambitions thwarted by the Saudi-backed Misra and his team. Son offered the Bolivian entrepreneur an alternative: Take his 40-man team to the Vision Fund, but work under Rajeev Misra.
Not one to be bossed around, Claure declined the offer and assumed a diminished role in the company, returning to where he had reached his highest peak as an independent business owner before Masayoshi Son had bought out Claure’s telecom startup, Brightstar, and placed him at the helm of Sprint, a company he is credited with saving from certain extinction. Back in Miami after his Vision Fund debacle, Claure heads SoftBank Latin America, as well as continuing as SoftBank Group’s Chief Operating Officer. In addition, Claure oversees operations of Boston Dynamics, ARM Holdings, Sprint, Fortress Investment Group and his original cell phone distributor, Brightstar, as CEO of SoftBank Group International.
His return to South Florida is really just academic, since his interests and those he represents never actually left. SoftBank’s stake in Miami is vast and cuts through the very fabric of this city and the region, in general. From Uber, to WeWork; from the saga of Miami FC and Beckham’s Soccer stadium complex to Brightline, SoftBank is making a play to buy us out with our own money through their proxies in the City, County, State and even Federal government, led by the luckiest business man ever to walk the face of the earth.
Raúl Marcelo Claure’s mother always knew that her second-born would turn out to be a great entrepreneur. The clues were plain to see even as a young boy. “As a six-year old,” she recalled, “he was selling marbles in the schoolyard by the case”. His father, René Claure, had hauled the family across the world as his career as a geologist for the United Nations Development Group demanded.
His first lucky break came on the heels of his graduation from Bentley College in Massachusetts where he’d earned a BS in business economics. The 21-year old was flying back to La Paz, though some accounts say he was on a flight to Quito, Ecuador. In any case, the legend goes, he happened to find out Guido Loayza, the man who had just been chosen to lead the Bolivian Soccer Federation (FBF) was on board and convinced a fellow passenger to give up his first class seat so he could bring Loayza to sit next to him.
The rest, as they say, is history and Claure was hired on-route by Loayza to manage the Federation’s marketing affairs. Loayza himself disputes the veracity of this story, saying that he met Claure in Las Vegas during a business conference. But, those are just pesky details or the ravings of an old man with a failing memory, according to Claure.
As his continued good fortune would have it, during Loayza’s tenure, the Bolivian national squad would qualify for the first time ever to the 1994 World Cup, which was to be held – also for the first time – in the United States. Claure was put in charge of the Bolivian Soccer Federation’s marketing operations in the host country, which he knew so well.
Most English-language press accounts of Claure’s biography go no further on this part of the budding entrepreneur’s life and promptly move on to his other dates with Lady Luck. But, this is precisely the point where cracks in the story begin to emerge. Cracks that will open into deep, dark chasms as the layers of his carefully-crafted image are peeled back.
Scalping the Competition
“He [Claure] was the one who managed everything about the ticket sales”, declared then head of the Bolivian Soccer Federation (FBF), Carlos Chavez, to a Bolivian newspaper, “He set up offices prior to the World Cup in the United States and we have information at the FBF, which is known publicly” he continued, “about the 12,000 tickets that were sold”. Chavez initially made the shocking allegations on live Bolivian television, waving documents that he claimed proved Claure and his predecessor at the FBF, Guido Loayza, had embezzled over $9 million in the ticket fraud scheme.
Regarding the allegations, Claure stated that, in his capacity as International General Manager of the FBF during the 1994 World Cup, a decision had been made to purchase 12,070 tickets from FIFA in order to resell them in “Bolivia and to Bolivian fans all over the world who wished to attend the games”. According to Claure, demand was too low and they were stuck with a lot of tickets. At a certain point, he sold the remaining tickets for a lump sum to a licensed ticket vendor in Massachusetts, after FIFA advised him that he wasn’t “authorized to sell the tickets in the North American market”. The lump sum in question was never clarified by Claure, who claimed not to remember the details.
In 2012, Chavez would run, successfully, for a third term as FBF President; this time against Claure, himself, who was (and remains) President of Club Bolivia, the most popular soccer team in the Andean nation. Right in the middle of his negotiations with Masayoshi Son’s Softbank to sell his telecom startup, Brightstar, and take over as Sprint’s CEO, Claure was challenging Chavez for the FBF’s top job. He was disqualified by the voting committee since his only purpose for running was to sabotage Chavez. Claure later admitted that, had he won the election, he would have resigned the next day.
On the day of the election, police had to be called to evacuate FBF headquarters after a bomb threat was made by an anonymous phone call. But, before the committee members were removed, a strange pickup truck pulled up and launched pepper spray into the crowd, causing a panic. Chavez would make his victory speech in a different venue a few blocks away.
“I don’t blame the government because it would be irresponsible,” said Chavez with tears in his eyes from the pepper spray and a handkerchief over his mouth, “but what is obvious… is that there must have been orders from up on high behind this disgraceful act.”
Just a few years later, Chavez would find himself targeted by Loretta Lynch’s DOJ probe into FIFA corruption. He was cleared in that investigation, but separate charges were later brought against him in Bolivia in an unrelated case of illicit enrichment. Chavez was accused and convicted of diverting funds from a charity soccer match and sentenced to ten years in a Bolivian prison. He would only serve two and a half years before succumbing to cancer in 2015.
Claure had filed libel and defamation suits against Chavez in a Florida court, for some reason. But, neither his suits nor Chavez’ accusations against Claure and Loayza went anywhere, perhaps, because Chavez would be dead less than five years after first making the accusations against Claure and Loayza, who also happened to be an engineer in telecommunications and was a business associate of Claure’s in an Argentinian cellular phone venture.
It was in telecom that Claure would make his real fortune. The result of yet another fortuitous turn of events with another vague backstory attached.
Lucky Charms are for Kids
Somewhere between Boston and Worcester on Route 9, a leprechaun nudged Claure to stop at a USA Wireless store. He had just returned from Bolivia, striking out on his own after his stint at the FBF and needed a cell phone. The Venezuelan owner, as claimed, was fond of telling his customers that he detested owning the roadside location. So miserable was he as a result, that he would offer to give the store away to anyone who wanted it. What are the odds, that a young man with Claure’s connections would walk into his retail establishment and, instead of getting that flip phone that was all the rage back then, would propose to give the man selling him that phone a 45% stake in his own store if he just handed its operation over to him?
The odds are about the same as anyone confirming that story. But, that’s the story we are given of how Marcelo Claure came to own one of the largest cellular phone retail chains on the East coast of the United States. From this ‘modest’ beginning and a loan from his father, René, Claure launched Brightstar Corp in 1997, which would take the barely nascent cellular market in Latin America by storm. From $14 million in revenue that first year, by 2003, annual revenue would exceed $1 billion and the company would be operating in 16 countries selling Motorola phones to different carriers throughout Central and South America.
Even the telecom crash of 2000 left Brightstar unscathed because it was just a middle man parsing the continent’s disparate bureaucratic red tape surrounding each countries’ import/export laws, which proved too expensive for the global players to deal with themselves. This niche allowed Brightstar, which took its name from the two largest cellphone distributors of the time – CellStar and Brightpoint – to snatch virtually all of the market share in the Latin American cell phone distribution space. Claure’s success would attract the largest names in the technology universe.
In 2003, Claure was seeking $50 million in venture capital to expand operations to Asia and, he told Inc Magazine, prepare to take Brightstar public later that Summer. When it was all said and done, Claure had hauled in over $60 million in VC money at a $400 million-dollar valuation. The joint fund was comprised of Falcon Investment Advisors, Prudential Capital Group, Ramius Capital Group and Bill Gates’ Grandview Capital Management.
Claure would never actually take the company public and Forbes would list Brightstar as the 58th largest privately held corporation in the U.S. in 2012. Softbank would buy Brightstar for $1.26 billion a year later and Claure would take over Masayoshi Son’s Sprint. But, years before Claure’s successful Brightstar exit, he would join a dubious philanthropic venture with Nicolas Negroponte, founder of MIT’s notorious Media Lab to distribute $100 dollar laptops to children in developing countries.
OLPC stands for One Laptop Per Child, an idea concocted by Nicolas Negroponte, who recently made headlines for justifying MIT Media Lab’s funding by deceased suspected sex-trafficker and intelligence asset,Jeffrey Epstein. The program was billed as a way to provide millions of children in Third World countries with their own personal Wi-Fi-enabled computer devices at far-below market prices and to promote education.
Negroponte first announced his pet project at the 2005 World Economic Forum in Davos. Not very enthusiastically received, an OLPC pilot was, nevertheless, launched two years later to much fanfare and a few bloopers at a UN meeting in Tunis, Africa. Secretary General, Kofi Annan, accidentally broke off the plastic crank of the prototype he was about to show off to the attendees. The gaff would foreshadow a litany of problems, that plague the non-profit initiative to this day; chief among which was the prevailing mistrust by the program’s target countries, who immediately saw through the ostensibly noble purpose and tagged the cheap laptops as a simple profit-driven agenda with a side of subversion.
Other criticisms revolve around the actual cost of the advertised “$100” price tag, which has yet to materialize. Intel, one the original partners, launched its own version with Microsoft; other start-ups in India and elsewhere developed their own low-cost laptops. Most of Negroponte’s devices are being distributed in Latin America, which is why OLPC headquarters were moved to Miami in 2010. The hardware of the OLPC devices also include an ARM-based chip, manufactured by AMD in partnership with ARM Holdings, one SoftBank’s Vision Fund assets overseen by Marcelo Claure.
Claure, who claims to have no political ambitions in his native country, has used the OLPC laptops and his role in Club Bolivar to forge a relationship with Evo Morales. Morales, who was just re-elected for yet another term as Bolivia’s President, is a known die-hard fan of Claure’s soccer club. In 2008, Claure is reported to have met with Morales and offered to build a cellphone factory in Bolivia in exchange for an OLPC contract. Another OLPC deal in neighboring Peru mysteriously fell through after a visit by Nicolas’ brother, John Negroponte, George Bush’s Director of National Intelligence and Ambassador to Iraq in 2005.
Miami is not a soccer town and unless its majority Cuban, Dominican and assorted Afro-Caribbean population is replaced by Argentinians and Brazilians, it will never be a soccer town. Anybody who’s spent a week in the city knows that, if anything, Miami is a football town, first and a baseball town, second; there is no third. So, why has Marcelo Claure been trying to bring soccer to Miami since 2008? And why is David Beckham always involved? More importantly, why is the Mayor of the City of Miami lobbying for a ridiculously expensive, publicly-funded stadium complex as if his political life depended on it?
None of these questions have a logical answer. The most benign conclusion is that Marcelo Claure is a capricious man who just wants what he wants and, he wants a soccer team in Miami. There’s certainly some evidence of flaky self-entitlement to his personality, a trait not unheard of among the privileged classes of Latin America, where the offspring of the comparatively wealthy are accustomed to princely lifestyles, regardless of their actual means.
Robert Andrew Powell’s piece in Howler profiles Claure and reveals some of the billionaire’s less flattering proclivities, like how he left the mother of his first two children because, according to Claure, “You can get tired of someone, you know?”. But, Powell also sheds light on a similar stadium-slash-soccer team-slash-development project he proposed in Bolivia soon after taking over the President’s favorite team. Claure put forward a “three-point plan” to revitalize Club Bolivia, the most important of which was, drumroll, a condo tower that “his brother Martin would oversee”.
More relevant to the Stadium drama in Miami is Powell’s account of Claure’s first dealings with City and County officials regarding the location originally proposed for its construction; a spectacular water-front piece of real estate on Biscayne Boulevard. Notwithstanding the multiple changes of address since, the initial spot was not Claure’s or even Beckham’s idea but, according to Claure, himself, a joint proposition by the County and City of Miami Mayors. The fact that we still have the County Mayor and the City of Miami Mayor pushing for this nonsensical project, is telling. But, what really stands out from this story is that one of those Mayors has since been replaced.
At the time the above took place, Thomas Regalado was the Mayor of Miami. Francis X. Suarez, the first Miami-born Mayor, took over after the 2018 municipal elections. The County Mayor, on the other hand, is the common denominator. Once again, Carlos Gimenez appears at the center of a public money-grab tied to a curiously homogenous cast of private persons with a web of financial interests throughout Miami-Dade County.
The Ultimate Land Grab
Months after Marcelo Claure’s losing battle with Rajeev Misra over control of the Vision Fund, Masayoshi Son did something uncharacteristic. He fired the CEO of one of his many startup investments. WeWork’s co-founder, Andrew Neumann, was ousted following a private meeting with company leaders held by Son and just weeks before the “money-losing real estate venture” was about to issue its first IPO. Initially, Neumann had agreed to take a non-executive role on WeWork’s board, but it is now reported that he has accepted $1.7 billion to walk away entirely.
Masayoshi Son is now the landlord of all nine WeWork locations in Miami, which equal 493,000 square feet of real estate, after agreeing to a $11.5 billion-dollar takeover of the ailing company. But, WeWork has $47.2 billion in U.S. debt obligations and leases that cannot be terminated early. Claure will now assume greater operational control, in the hopes that he can recreate what he did with Sprint years ago. However, bankruptcy is still a very real option, in spite of SoftBank’s infusion of debt into the company.
No one must be happier about the news than Carlos Gimenez, who has been leading the charge for SoftBank to put the whole of Miami into its Saudi-funded $100 billion Vision Fund. In an email exchange obtained by the Miami Herald between Jorge Mas, one of the latest partners in the ever-changing Beckham Stadium funhouse and the County Mayor, Gimenez turns into a school girl when Mas floats the idea of meeting the elusive Masayoshi: “How can we meet him? I’m totally into the future of IA [sic]. We have to win that race.”
What race is he talking about? This is a man who is presiding over a County with the second-highest level of income inequality in the country, a cash poor population living paycheck to paycheck earning some of the lowest wages in the nation. Meanwhile, he thinks the Jetsons are coming down in flying taxis from Masayoshi Son’s private space station. The clueless County and City Commissions seem to be drinking the Kool-aide, as well, approving billion-dollar spider bridges, empty sports stadiums, Chinese casinos and high-end train for tourists.
Miami is being handed the equivalent of an OLPC contract by this stable of venture capitalists and their executive bouncers, like Claure, looking to make a quick buck at the expense of our real needs and using our tax dollars to finance their bets. The criticism levied against Negroponte’s $100 computers “as an attempt to exploit the governments of poor nations by making them pay for hundreds of millions of machines and the need of further investments into internet infrastructure” is just as applicable to the machinations of SoftBank in concert with our government officials and their unsolicited bids for a multi-million-dollar stadium complex and a train stop for a private “transit” venture with an exit strategy.
In the same email chain published by the Herald, Mas seems giddy over the possibility that SoftBank Latin America could build its headquarters in Miami. “It would be transformational for our economy”, gushed Mas. But, when people like Mas and his good buddy, Carlos Gimenez, are singing a company’s praises, we can be sure “our economy” means their economy.
There are, however, broader questions surrounding the ubiquitous presence of SoftBank and Mr. Claure in Miami. Especially, when their biggest cheerleaders are the usual suspects of South Florida’s circle of rightwing reactionaries who never saw a U.S.-sponsored regime-change operation in Latin America they didn’t like. From Rick Scott who has been front-and-center at all of Trump’s visits to Miami promoting the largely failing Guaidó op in Venezuela and other interventions against regional governments who are venturing too far outside of American party line; to Miami-Dade Mayoral candidate, Esteban “Steve” Bovo, whose wife flew down to Cúcuta, Colombia with Marco Rubio for the occasion of Richard Branson’s laughable anti-Maduro “concert” on the border with Venezuela, which tried and failed to smuggle weapons under the guise of humanitarian aid. Bovo, curiously enough, is in Japan right now on a family “vacation”.
Guido Loayza, the man who gave Marcelo Claure his first break, described the SoftBank COO’s personality as “friendly, like a rich person’s dog.” The billionaire executive has certainly been given a lot of responsibilities. His job description could run several pages long and that’s not even counting his MLS and Club Bolivia’s ostensible obligations. How much time is he actually dedicating to any of it?
Other dissonant factors surrounding Claure’s public image are his random comments in support of left-leaning ideas, such as his praise of MLS’ structure as being “communist”, and, therefore, better than other Soccer leagues, like the English Premiere League with their top-heavy ownership. Claure even caught some slack from Miami politicians four years ago after he Tweeted a photo of Che Guevara’s monument in Havana while he was in Cuba on business, forcing David Beckham, himself, to engage in some damage control for his project’s sake. It’s unclear how sincere any of his appeals to socialist concepts really are, considering his family’s station in Bolivia.
The Claure family name is mentioned among other Bolivian elites who belong to the South American nation’s powerful agro-industrial sector and have been the direct beneficiaries of Bolivia’s violently repressive, U.S.-backed dictators. Among the most notorious was Hugo Banzer, who rose to power in 1971 in a coup orchestrated by those same families and significant U.S. logistical and financial support, which was looking to protect the interests of American corporations in the country, like U.S. Steel and others.
But, Bolivia also represents a strategically vital component of America’s broader intentions in the continent, as a whole. Bordering Brazil, Peru, Paraguay, Chile and Argentina, Bolivia is at the center of all the action in South America and it is part of the reason the United States has historically been very involved in that country’s affairs. The rise of Evo Morales has upset the balance of power in the region, not to mention the country itself.
Bolivia’s propertied classes have been trying unsuccessfully to regain power. Morales’ popularity makes a democratic solution untenable, as the recent election and every other since Evo’s victory in 2003 has proved.
Marcelo Claure, scion of the Bolivian elites, is overseeing what is probably the largest investment portfolio of Latin America from Miami; courted by the most radically conservative, anti-communist, anti-socialist, pro-interventionist community in the United States. At the same time, he has a reportedly forged a close relationship with one of their ideological arch-enemies in Evo Morales.
There’s definitely something rotten in Denmark, which – ironically – may be the only place on the planet where SoftBank has not invested.
Miami’s “modern-day” transit system was born in the midst of the so-called cocaine wars, when Colombian cartels, small-time Cuban dealers and the hopelessly corrupt Miami PD all took turns gracing the front pages of local newspapers. As the city reeled from shocking acts of violence, millions of dollars flowed into the ‘regular’ economy from the inconceivably profitable drug trade. Bankers, real estate developers, brokers, lawyers. Everybody who was anybody was reaping the benefits and the signs of conspicuous wealth, that came to define Miami’s image around the world, took root.
Contrasting with the Ferraris and Corvettes sprouting like weeds on Miami’s new suburban home driveways, tens of thousands of Cuban refugees were crossing the Florida Straits and getting crammed into hastily-erected tents under I-95. The Mariel boat lift instantly produced a new demographic, which would shape the politics of Miami-Dade County for the next 35 years.
Enormous concrete columns were raised parallel to South Dixie Highway as construction began on an elevated rail system, harboring great promise for the rapidly growing metro. Almost four decades later, that hope would turn out to be as fleeting as a basuco high. Ronald Reagan derided the federally-funded Metrorail during a visit to the city in 1985, quipping that it would have been cheaper to buy everyone in Miami a limousine, instead. The criticism was in line with the radical right wing ideologues who surrounded Reagan and harbored deep contempt for government spending, so long as it benefited others.
Just three years earlier, Reagan was in Miami heaping praise on the results produced by a massive swell of federal law enforcement personnel to fight his war on drugs, which he had declared officially in National Security Decision Directive 221. The special South Florida task force created to wage it and headed by former CIA director and Vice President, George H.W. Bush, established Miami as the home base for federal counter drug operations. Posing in front of seized narcotics and a cache of weapons, Reagan called the dramatic expansion of law enforcement and intelligence assets in Miami a “brilliant example of working federalism”.
The DEA, already boasting a heavy presence in the region, added 60 new agents, 10 supervisors and 3 intelligence analysts. The FBI, which had until then remained on the periphery of drug trafficking cases, was given “concurrent jurisdictional powers” with the DEA and its director became the “general supervisor” of the war on drugs. 43 new agents were added to it’s payroll in South Florida. Similarly, the Coast Guard, the Customs Service, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the IRS and several other agencies transferred dozens of personnel to Miami. Even the U.S. Treasury recruited 20 new analysts to handle cases of money laundering.
At that point, the Iran-Contra scandal had yet to break into mainstream consciousness and the role top officials of his administration were playing in the tons of cocaine moving through Miami was still an unfathomable conspiracy theory. But, by the time Oliver North and his Chief of Staff, Edwin Meese III, were sitting in front of Congress divulging as little as they possibly could about the covert coke-for-guns operation they’d been running with help from the CIA, Miami’s new political class was fully ensconced as the petty vice royalty of the new spook colony.
A Traitor at the Orange Bowl
Miami’s political future was born at the Orange Bowl on a cloudy day in 1962, where President John F. Kennedy, his wife Jackie and 40,000 people attended a ceremony to welcome back the surviving members of Brigade 2506, who had been captured, imprisoned and eventually repatriated to the United States by Fidel Castro after the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Made up of more than 1,100 Cuban army defectors, volunteer exiles and a few mobsters recruited and trained by the CIA, several Brigade members boycotted the event. They blamed Kennedy for the operation’s failure after he refused to provide air cover to the counterrevolutionaries and from that moment on, Miami’s Cuban exile community would close ranks and become the most reactionary, right-wing political base in the country.
The very mention of John F. Kennedy would henceforth be proscribed in every household from the sprawling burbs of Kendall to Little Havana, where a monument in honor of the fallen at the Bay of Pigs stands and is the site of an annual commemoration when its not held at the posh Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, Florida. Likewise, Kennedy’s policies along with anything the Democratic Party put forward would also be shot down on principle rather than any consideration of the merits.
The same year the Brigade Commander, Pepe San Román, handed Kennedy a folded Brigade 2506 flag at the Orange Bowl, Kennedy had delivered his Special Message to Congress on Transportation. In it, he announced his intentions to deal with what he called the “chaotic patchwork” of “obsolete legislation” that was encumbering the nation’s various transportation systems, pledging drastic federal intervention to resolve the “inefficiencies, inequities and other undesirable conditions” that prevailed around the country, which was suffering under a disjointed network of private systems teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.
After he was gunned down in Dallas, his successor, Lyndon Johnson followed through with the slain leader’s wishes and passed the Urban Mass Transit Act, which created the UMTA (Urban Mass Transportation Agency) opening up the federal government’s coffers to local county and city governments around the country to start buying up the failing private systems and operate their own public transit authorities.
The Radical Base
Dade County would take advantage of the opportunity in the early 70’s, when it took the federal grant and formed the Metro Dade Transportation Agency. In 1976, it applied for and later got $1.25 Billion in federal money to build the Metrorail system. But, by then, a largely unknown but powerful group of private interests were mounting a nation-wide movement against all forms of federal spending, public institutions and democracy itself. One of the leading minds of this movement was then promoting his business-friendly theories of law at the University of Miami and conspiring with one of the richest men in the country about how best to destroy the threats to “free market” economics.
One of the devices used to this end was the Cato Institute, a radical conservative think tank designed to promote policies that play into the larger goals of its de facto founder and largest benefactor, Charles Koch, along with his billionaire-class friends. Just one among dozens of similar foundations and front groups created by the American fossil fuel oligarch, Cato Institute’s anti-communist framing of practically every discussion of public assets was catnip to Miami’s Cuban exile community and helped shape much of their political views. Whatever the Koch-network wanted, Miami Cubans were easily brought on board simply because it meant rebuking the bearded protagonist of all their nightmares.
In 1991, the Koch-funded Cato Institute published its Cato Policy Analysis No. 162, entitled “False Dreams and Broken Promises: The Wasteful Federal Investment in Urban Mass Transit” which claimed to reveal the “cold hard lesson” of subsidized public transit systems around the United States over the previous two and a half decades since the creation of the Urban Mass Transportation Administration. The libertarian think tank puts forward 9 “myths” that support federal subsidies of public transit and proceeds to ‘debunk’ them.
Many of the same tropes our City and County officials use to cut transit funding are present in Cato’s analysis. The old con that people only use public transit “when they have no other reasonable choice” and constant cries of declining ridership are weaved together with barbs against unionized transit workers and feeble attempts to undermine the environmental benefits of mass transit; the latter two being mainstays of Koch-network propaganda, which continues to be deployed against public transit.
The attacks against Miami’s public transit began almost from its inception, but it wasn’t until the leaders of the radical Cuban base were fully ensconced in power that concerted efforts to undermine, sabotage and ultimately re-privatize it began in earnest. Their rise to the top of Miami politics was not the result of an organic process, but rather the product of an allegiance with powerful elements in the intelligence community and an identification with the existing, and racially oppressive power structure that ruled the city.
Racial inequality in Miami has been historically high and it was openly so even in the post-civil rights 60’s and 70’s, before the Cuban emigres started to figure prominently in the political and social ranks.
The defunct Miami PD was notoriously racist and routinely engaged in brutal beatings of Blacks, who were considered less than human by the mostly White police department, recruited mainly from Southern Georgia’s “cracker” population. Things in Miami came to a head in 1968 during the Republican national convention, which was being hosted at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach. The nation-wide race riots that gripped the country did not spare Miami and the added component of Spanish-speaking Latinos forming an increasingly larger proportion of the population made the Miami PD the “last bastion of white, Southern bigots”.
This was an image problem, which contemporary city leaders had to deal with and led then Miami City Manager, Mel Reese, to look for a police chief who could transform the ingrained racist culture of a police department required to deal with an increasingly diverse community. The city commissioned the International Association of Chiefs of Police to initiate a national search for suitable candidates. When none of the proposed names came through, Reese traveled in secret to Tucson, Arizona to try to recruit the “dean of American Police”, Bernard Garmire.
Garmire had earned national acclaim due to his progressive approach to police management. He was the first chief of police to require his officers to attend college courses and had successfully overseen the growth of the Tucson police department from 157 to 450 officers in just the span of four years. By the time Reese paid him a visit, Garmire was a widely recognized member of the law enforcement community and a deputy director of US Customs in Arizona.
Colleagues at the International Association of Chiefs of Police warned him not to take Reese’s job offer, informing him of the Miami PD’s terrible reputation and how the infamous Miami chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police had launched a $10,000 investigation into his background. Garmire ended up taking Reese’s very generous package, which included an executive retirement plan and a 50% salary increase. He became Miami’s Chief of Police on June 15, 1969.
Chief Garmire did his level best to root out racist attitudes and professionalize the Miami Police Department, but was met with fierce resistance at every turn. As his efforts to improve relations between his charges and the community at large failed, morale deteriorated. When Reese, who was his only support in Municipal government, was replaced after the 1974 elections, Garmire’s days were numbered.
38-year old Maurice Ferré was inaugurated as the city’s first Cuban Mayor and rapidly took the side of Miami PD’s old guard versus his Chief of Police. Ferré would run Garmire out of town after a grand jury was convened, that put him on the spot to answer questions about the city’s crime rate. The Mayor then organized public hearings at Miami City Hall to address Garmire’s supposed “malfeasance” based on the grand jury’s report, itself reliant on testimony of dissidents within his own police department. The renowned police man resigned before the third hearing and blamed his enemies at city hall and his department for causing his wife’s stroke.
The old “cracker” guard would take the young Cuban recruits under their wing, showing them how things were done in the Magic City. Just six years later, the brutal murder of Arthur McDuffie at the hands of Miami police officers would set off the most violent riots in the city’s short history. The fatal blows, it was determined, were delivered by the only Cuban among the 7 officers indicted and subsequently acquitted of the heinous act of police brutality.
Pinko Commie Transit
Racism in Miami is a more nuanced affair than most other parts of the country, but it is prevalent nonetheless and is a pivotal issue in its public transit system; intertwined with the problems that plague it and with the County’s continual efforts to privatize it.
Many African Americans came to Miami in the 50’s and 60’s escaping pernicious Jim Crow laws in their home states and took the only jobs that were available to them: bus drivers and teachers. All the “good” private sector jobs were still reserved for the White majority, but the public sector, which was facing pressures from new Civil Rights legislation, offered these rural folk the employment opportunities they otherwise lacked.
Just when LBJ’s Kennedy-inspired UMTA started buying up bankrupt private transit agencies around the country, Miami’s bus drivers and public school teachers began to unionize and demand a better standard of living. In the late 60’s, thousands of new transit jobs came online and transformed the economics of South Florida’s Black workers, which resulted in the creation of a small professional class of African Americans, not only in Miami but in many other Southern cities with public transit systems.
The promise represented by the creation of MDTA and all it entailed for the city’s economic development was soon beset by internal sabotage by the agency’s director in league with County officials who engaged in a campaign to privatize the system and bust the TWU Local 291 union, whose workforce operated the buses and the recently completed Metrorail.
Downtown business leaders met with the then Chair of the Transportation Committee, Clara Oesterle to discuss ways to “fix” public transit and concluded that reducing worker wages and phasing out the County’s obligation to maintain a transit system were the answers. Oesterle and a fellow Commissioner then met with the largest private transit management company in the world, ATE, to go over potential privatization scenarios. One month later, the Commission launched a Blue Ribbon Task Force on Transportation with Oesterle and MDTA Executive Director, Joe Fletcher, and Chamber of Commerce officers on the Committee.
The Blue Ribbon Task Force’s recommendations, issued in May of the following year, included a 20% reduction in wages, forcing the union to strike and replace vacancies with new employees, a drastic reduction in bus service and a 33% spike in bus fares. The union issued its own report, in which it revealed manipulation and distortion of statistics by the Blue Ribbon Task Force and called it a “crude attempt by Dade’s business leaders to embroil the County Commission in a union-busting venture, remove control of MDTA from the accountability of voters and elected officials, and hand over a valuable public asset to special business interests.”
The Set Back
The only thing that saved Miami’s public transit from being completely privatized at that time was the bomb that was about to drop when nearly a third of the city’s infamous police force were discovered to be stealing cocaine shipments, confiscated cash and murdering the people they were supposed to be bringing to justice in the city’s “cocaine wars”. The sensational case of the Miami Seven, so called, exploded onto the national and international stage.
The half-dozen Little Havana midnight shift officers caught trafficking in stolen narcotics proved to be a microcosm of the rampant corruption in the city. The whole affair threw a tourist-dependent South Florida into damage control mode and it would be a few years until the stench of the real-life Miami Vice saga would fade. In 1989, not long after the Miami Seven trial, Alex Marrero, the officer who had been acquitted of murder in the Arthur McDuffie case ten years before was caught in the Everglades burning incriminating documents.
But, something even more devastating to Miami’s freshman political classed happened that year: The Berlin Wall came down and the imminent break-up of the Soviet Union undermined the entire basis for the ongoing Cuban embargo, which besides starving Cubans on the island, maintained a robust anti-Castro media industry in Miami, not to mention the very premise of their presence in American politics. Barely three years later, a catastrophic hurricane would further change the dynamics of the city, even convincing a few of the hard core Cuban political club of the benefits of a working public transit system.
The devastation left behind by hurricane Andrew was as clear as it was heartbreaking under the jet blue, cloudless sky that taunted Miami the day after it tore through the area. Never before had a storm of this magnitude hit Florida or any other place, for that matter. The hurricane’s track had been misjudged and had made landfall further south and west than initially predicted. Official death tolls are missing thousands of migrant farmers who perished in Homestead, but whose dubious legal status left them unaccounted for.
In the sprawling suburbs of unincorporated Miami-Dade County, the shoddy building practices of unscrupulous real estate developers were exposed by the ferocious storm, as the roofs of entire mid-luxury home developments were blown away. FP&L discovered just how fragile their infrastructure really was and power remained down for months in large swaths of the County. With gas shortages to boot, the absence of a genuine transit system was made apparent to everyone.
Four years later, a new proposal for transit expansion was brought to the ballot box and this time, the people voted for it in overwhelming numbers. The result, however, was worse than the first go around, producing only a short extension of the Metrorail to the airport and a completely unnecessary, and hugely expensive terminal to go with it; a terribly designed boondoggle of epic proportions, that took over ten years to complete.
Once the memory of Andrew faded, the County Commission started humming an old tune and pointing to declining ridership of a system they refused to improve in any significant way, as an excuse to implement service cuts throughout Miami-Dade. But, the public’s desire for an expanded transit system was slowly becoming unassailable and no politician running for a seat in County or City government could ignore it.
The pressure has been increasing over the years and has, by now, become the single most important political issue in Miami. It will define the upcoming election for County Mayor, an office occupied for the past ten years by a man with no scruples who has shown no compunction about lying directly to the people of the County.
On Monday, former Secretary of Transportation, Anthony Foxx, delivered the keynote address at the 6th annual Safe Streets Summit held right here in Miami, among the top five cities in pedestrian fatalities and the second-ranked city in America for poverty and income inequality.
The Obama-appointee’s remarks revealed how design is at the center of America’s most marginalized communities and how technology is contributing to the reformulation of personal mobility. Foxx, who is now Lyft’s Public Policy Director, nonetheless stressed that “There’s no algorithm that can push us beyond the unavoidable questions of humanity or the existential questions we face in this country now, probably more than [at] any time in my lifetime about how we all live together”.
He began his presentation talking about Major League Baseball’s Rule 1.04, which suggests the most desirable location of home plate on the field, so that batters always hit with the sun at their back. The same kind of deliberate intent informs the building of our roads, bridges and all other parts of our urban landscape. “There’s no infrastructure,” he stated, “that is randomly placed anywhere.”
Anthony Foxx’s political career began relatively recently, in Charlotte, North Carolina where he grew up. He became a City Council member in 2005 and Mayor just four years later, at one of the most daunting times for the city. As the second-largest financial services center in the country, Charlotte was especially hard-hit by the 2008 financial crisis. Foxx’s success in turning the city’s fortunes around and his innovative approach to the foundering Blue Line Extension project, earned him nationwide attention and, eventually a nomination to become the 17th Secretary of Transportation in 2013.
Streets are a personal issue for him. He understands how the immediate environment affects communities and how the interstate highway system lies at the root of much of our problems today. “The highway system has been a marvelous economic success. It has accomplished what it was intended to do, but let’s be clear,” Foxx said, “…the impact on urban communities was severe.”
The interstate highway system, ushered in by Eisenhower in 1956, was originally designed to link farmers with market centers. The program, however, continues to this day and has cost nearly $130 billion, so far. As Foxx points out, there has also been a great cost levied on urban spaces. The highways literally cut right through the center of most major cities, bisecting neighborhoods and displacing millions of people.
“When I look at the neighborhood that I grew up in,” Foxx recounts, “it was actually constrained by these very freeways I’m taking about… I-77 and I-85 actually meet just about two blocks away from where I grew up.” He continues, “…when I looked out in front of my grandparents’ house I saw a freeway. When I looked to the right I saw a freeway.”
One of the most telling graphics Foxx presented was a side-by-side map of the city of Charlotte before and after construction of the interstate highways. Marked in blue were the areas populated by the lower-income communities and in red the more affluent ones. The pre-1960’s map showed the affluent neighborhoods concentrated in the city’s urban core and the poorer ones surrounding it, on the periphery. The current map shows a complete reversal, with the affluent areas moved out into the suburbs and the low-income neighborhoods clustered in the center, hugging the freeways.
He cites examples of how highways are also used to effect so-called “slum-clearance” strategies to push low-income communities out of areas identified for redevelopment. “There is an area of Baltimore, where the city is literally bisected by a freeway and actually stops cold.” Foxx tells us. “It’s called the ‘freeway to nowhere’. This was done, in part, as a slum-clearance strategy.”
Marginalized by Hue
Cities and neighborhoods all across America have suffered the same fate over the years. Staten Island, St. Paul, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Seattle, Montgomery and our own Overtown were among the few places Foxx mentioned as he laid out the facts of a story told again and again, which he insists is “the product of design… not the product of benign neglect.”
Pointing out that remuneration was non-existent in the 50’s and 60’s, Foxx highlighted the fact that the compensation given to many of the displaced families for their homes was based on severely depreciated values since their properties were about to be razed to the ground. This is a reality, which affected a disproportionate number of African-American communities, like the one in Brooklyn – a neighborhood in Charlotte, NC that, according to Foxx, had “1,200 or so African-American owned businesses”, and was just one of many neighborhoods, that came under assault when “thousands” of urban development agencies wreaked havoc in communities nationwide.
The impact on lower-income areas is hard to overstate, but Foxx perfectly illustrated the effects that displacement can have on marginalized groups with the story about a neighborhood in St. Louis, “that abutted what’s now the international airport. And that community was… low-income, high African-American population. That community was displaced to create room for the airport. That group of people moved to a place called Ferguson.”
A Matter of Life and Death
The day-to-day reality on the ground for pedestrians in Miami and other major cities around this country is the stuff of nightmares. Lack of sidewalks, dangerous crossing areas, heavy vehicle traffic and all manner of disincentives and obstacles for walking or biking make for a very segregated lifestyle. For people in low-income areas, it can be deadly.
“Let’s say you’re a single mom, you have three children,” Foxx suggests, “You just spent two hours at the grocery store, an hour taking a bus to get from the grocery store to home. You get dropped off at the bus stop and the house that you live in is 90 feet across the street. The nearest crossing area is more than half a mile down the road. How many people would walk half a mile to the crossing area?” Foxx asks. “Well,” he continues, “this mom carried her kids across the street. The youngest child who is about 3 years old, loses his mother’s hand and is struck by a car and killed.”
People with cars would be hard-pressed to even imagine such a scenario. But, this is not just a scenario. This is a tragic true story out of Atlanta, Georgia. But, something like this could have just as easily happened – and certainly has happened – anywhere in South Florida.
“These streets don’t really exist for the people who need to use them on foot.” Says Foxx. Indeed, Miami is among the least walkable cities in the world and our public transit system is an abject failure. Meanwhile, County Mayor Gimenez, floats red-herrings like flying taxis and Chinese concept buses as he tries to push through yet another highway project.
I have a feeling the former Secretary of Transportation is familiar with Gimenez’ absurd propositions. At one point during his presentation, he brought up a picture of Saudi royals surrounding a drone-like, multi-propeller flying car. “I’m just showing you this. This is a flying car or whatever, um… good luck with that.”, he quipped.
“If you look at long term trends,” Foxx went on, “in fact, the city we’re sitting in today – you’re going to see so much more growth, that it’s going to be difficult to keep up with the infrastructure, with the needs of a growing population.”
A Fork in the Road
We have to start making better choices and undoing some of the bad ones, that were made in the past. As technology quickens the pace of change in the world, we have to find ways to ground ourselves and not become the victims of convenience.
There is a grand illusion surrounding our new digital age, expressed succinctly by an anecdote Foxx shared with the room about his wife and her online Christmas shopping habits. After completing all of it, she proudly turned to her husband to brag about how many “trips” she had “saved” by making all her purchases over the Internet. “And me, 17th Secretary of Transportation,” said Foxx to the amused crowd, “has to say to her: ‘Honey, you just created 25 trips… god knows how many miles of trips you’ve created!’”
The virtual world is dangerous because it makes us even more blind to how the world really is. And, before we become like Stephen King’s Lawnmower Man and fully fuse with our silicon simulacrum, we have to take a step back and take a good, long look at where we are and what we are doing.
Over the last half-century, our cities have become nothing but massive parking lots. There are hardly any trees anywhere and our quality of life is diminishing by the minute. “People are recognizing that the personal automobile has its limitations.” Said Foxx. “We spend the second-highest amount of our wallet, as a country, on transportation. And yet, the cars that we buy are used about 5 to 6 percent of the time.”
The interstate highway system served its purpose, but we are outgrowing it as a society. We also might recognize that the problems it created may turn out to be more harmful than any of the benefits accrued over the time of its use, and that a car-centric view of the universe is a net-negative for the world, in general. “I frankly think there are urban freeways,” Foxx concludes, “that could be torn down and replaced with open space or affordable housing or other assets that would be more valuable.”
Last Thursday, the TPO board members voted to forgo extending the beleaguered Metrorail to South Dade, and instead approve plans to build a Bus Rapid Transit system (BRT) along the busway, a 20-plus mile stretch of pavement that currently runs several bus routes from the Dadeland South terminal to different points in the southernmost parts of the County.
The question of Metrorail extension has been dangled over the heads of Dade County’s transit-challenged population for decades now, like a chunk of raw meat over a starving circus cat. This last instance of kabuki theater comes on the heels of massive and continuous cuts to bus routes all over the city and the roll out of the new, privately owned “Miami Trolleys”, and the by-now infamous campaign promises of Carlos Gimenez, who led the charge for BRT – beginning just months after hoodwinking the electorate with glossy re-election posters proclaiming “More Rail”.
However, if we look more closely, we can see that neither Gimenez nor any of the “Rail, but” crowd who have been promoting the ‘idea’ of rail while leaving themselves enough space to backtrack at a moment’s notice were never really planning on giving residents of Miami-Dade another mile of rail. The airport extension only got built because former Mayor Alex Penelas left the project fully funded before leaving office and – most importantly – it would ostensibly serve the interests of the tourist industry; a concept, which has so far proven wrong. But, the fate of Metrorail expansion to South Dade had been decided years ago when they ripped up the existing train tracks, which ran all along what is now the Busway.
Fast-Track to Nowhere
The special session three days ago, once again leaned on the people’s well-known desire to see Metrorail extended. In yet another sham hearing with a few pro-rail voices peppered throughout, the final pro-BRT majority had been determined long before. Among the most disappointing pro-BRT votes was that of newly elected County Commissioner Eileen Higgins, who herself ran what is possibly the most pro-transit campaign of any aspiring Commish in the history of the County. The few minutes allotted to each Commissioner during the session saw Higgins offer a justification of her upcoming vote, citing her “luxurious” experience with BRT in Mexico City – a massive metropolis with a public transit system that surpasses that of New York’s and many other world class systems.
Commission Chairman, Esteban Bovo Jr.’s hypocrisy was in full display from the beginning. When fellow TPO board member and pro-rail, Coral Gables Commissioner, Vince Lago was defending his motion to re-open the “reasonable opportunity to be heard” in favor of the community, Bovo interrupted Lago in typical fashion and warned his colleague over “grandstanding”. Bovo’s admonishment was completely uncalled for and drew a quizzical look from Lago, whose motion was nevertheless adopted by Bovo, but only allowed 2 minutes for public comment, lest the individual had spoken at the first session, in which case they got only 1 minute to speak. Bovo, himself, would conclude the day’s proceedings with a grandstanding, 8-minute speech about being for rail despite voting against it seconds later.
The entrenched, American Dream ideology of several board members was also expressed during the short meeting, with Commissioners Joe Martinez and Javier Souto doubling down on last century’s car-equals-freedom paradigm. Martinez even went as far as to disparage public transit users entirely, implying they’re not worth spending any real money on. Souto, who – incredibly – was just reinstalled for yet another term in office, ran down his decades on the dole as if it was some kind of virtue and proclaimed to know more than anyone else. His pitch as elder statesman should convince us that we don’t need rail, apparently.
Only TPO Executive Director, Aileen Bouclé and Commissioner Moss offered some kind of practical opposition to the pro-BRT item on the table, calling into question the 35,000-rider threshold proposed in the BRT plan to “convert” the system to rail once the aforementioned rider density is reached. Citing Commissioner Moss’ numbers regarding rider densities in other cities around the country, far lower than 35,000, Bouclé suggested an amendment be considered to change the South Dade BRT plan’s language from an arbitrary rider-threshold number to a contingency designed around a national average of rail rider density. After some lip service from Bovo and others, Bouclé’s logical request was quickly swept under the rug and ignored.
Finally, Miami’s new Mayor, Francis X. Suarez, stated his opposition over the fact that the full BRT project study had only been submitted Monday afternoon, and nobody – including him – had read more than a few snippets, much less the entire 1,200-page document. No matter, according to the TPO board majority. The vote was fast-tracked to take place by 1pm, thanks in part, to the deliciously ironic pleas of TPO board-member Carlos Hernandez, who begged the board to move quickly on the item because of his long and arduous 4-hour commute to-and-from the County seat.
Just minutes after one o’clock, the Metrorail was struck down again and BRT was passed as the preferred option for South Dade, despite the overwhelming and repeated support for rail by both the residents of South Dade, and the rest of the county. Meanwhile, Gimenez will move forward with his plan for an 836 extension along the edge of the Everglades, costing about as much as the rail extension would have, and multiplying the threat to our already stressed eco-system, to boot.
The Old Switcharoo
Before lunch had even arrived, Bovo posted a victory tweet announcing the TPO’s passing of South Dade’s BRT project. The wording of his post should raise red flags, as he immediately starts changing the terminology, referring to it as “enhanced premium transportation alternatives”. We should be wary about what actually comes of this BRT project we still know little about, except for a couple of expensive animated renderings they were already playing on MDT’s digital signage screens BEFORE the vote.
In addition to Bovo’s slick tweet, the County Mayor, himself belied the entire premise of converting BRT to rail in the future right after the meeting, when Herald beat reporter, Doug Hanks asked him if Metrorail would ever be expanded in Miami-Dade:
After the vote, I asked @MayorGimenez if he thought Metrorail would ever be expanded in Miami-Dade. His answer: "Metrorail? It's very difficult. Because it's very expensive." Did say commuter rail on Brightline tracks was likely, and maybe light rail elsewhere.
It’s unlikely we’ve seen the end of “Metrorail vs (bacon)” scam. We may have even been privy to the set up for the next farcical battle in Miami politics involving this evergreen issue, with Mayor Suarez’ inconsequential no-vote on Thursday. Carlos Gimenez has recently stated his desire to remain in public office and challenge Suarez for city Mayor in 2022. Transit will still be a major – and probably bigger – problem in Miami by then, so if Gimenez and Suarez do square off in six years, you can be sure they’ll try to use Metrorail as a political tactic again. We can’t allow that.
The TPO’s decision over BRT vs Rail underscores the County’s continued failure to properly address, manage or otherwise offer functional public transit solutions to the people of Miami-Dade. Transit director, Alice Bravo has shown herself to be unequal to the task. Now, she will oversee the implementation of BRT for South Dade, but no one who has used Miami-Dade Transit lately can seriously expect any kind of practical improvement.
As a long-time user of MDT, I can’t be optimistic. As many others, I know the reality on the ground. The county is so far behind where it should be on transit, that it will take a complete 180-degree shift in priorities and a basic level of honesty from our political class, that – like my bus and trust in County government – is simply not there now.
In Miami, one of the most popular phrases used by our political class is the ever present “American Dream”; the go-to euphemism for social mobility and odd rebuttal to the residents’ continued demands for better public transit.
A Better Life?
Cars, according to County Commission Chairman Esteban Bovo, are part of the so-called American Dream. For the people who move to Miami from all over the world, toll-roads, expressways and bumper-to-bumper traffic on Bird Road is the fulfillment of a yearning they carry over from their respective Latin American ‘shit holes’. Buses and trains? That’s just a bad dream.
While Bovo pays lip service to the transit-challenged population, engaging in visible marketing bus adventures, the pervasive mentality among his ilk – who otherwise never step foot in a bus – is decidedly anti-public transit.
Just a few days ago, Bovo put out this telling tweet:
Using the @IRideMDT app made the experience good. I use Metrorail often, however the bus doesn’t work for me since I have my son in camp and meetings all over town. https://t.co/jyExnaWlla
Perhaps the commissioner is unaware that most people in Miami have children, too, and taking “meetings all over town” is about as feasible on a Miami-Dade bus as getting to a 9-to-5 on time. Perhaps the bus “doesn’t work” for him because it doesn’t work for anybody.
El Sueño Cubano
With few exceptions, wherever you look on the County Seat dais, instead of representatives we find agents of developer interests masquerading as elected officials, who carry a chip on their shoulder about a boogey man in another country altogether. It’s almost as if these guys have been making policy in Miami for the last 30 years just to ‘stick it’ to Castro, and show him how capitalist capitalism can be. To them, public transit is an expression of socialism, it seems. The car, on the other hand, embodies the ‘free market’ ethos they ostensibly champion, while rigging the game for their developer friends in back room deals.
The Mayor, who staked his entire re-election campaign on public transit, has invoked the so-called American Dream to excuse one of the most unbelievable about faces in recent memory, comparable only to George Bush’s “Read my lips. No new taxes.” Giménez even had the audacity, after circulating campaign materials with the words “More Rail Lines” directly above his pepper shade comb over, to dismiss rail as “19th century technology”, shortly before taking a publicly-funded trip to China with a 15-people entourage. The two-week sojourn was billed as a fact-finding mission for innovative transit solutions; a laughable premise, which never seemed to produce any kind of official – or unofficial- report of their observations. The only notable fact to come out of the Asian vacation was the Mayor’s absolute silence about the tragedy of the collapsed FIU pedestrian bridge. Despite having direct family connections to the company, which designed the ill-fated structure, not a single word came from Beijing or wherever in the Middle Kingdom Carlos Giménez happened to be at the time.
It’s also not a trivial matter that the Mayor traveled to a communist country to conduct business, and everyone who lives in Miami should get the joke. As a member of the world’s leading anti-communist exile community, Carlos Giménez and the rest of the Cuban-born gang who presides over the vast majority of local government seats have made a living backing a five-decade old economic embargo on ‘la patria’, and condemning everything left of your right hand’s pinky finger.
Cars Killed the Dream
The irony is that the automobile itself is to blame for the demise of the so-called American dream.
For close to a century, the American working class managed to gain benefits and increase wages, while reducing the number of hours they had to put in each day. This, in turn, resulted in the creation of the biggest middle class in modern history. The automobile was a big part of that process, spurring growth and entrepreneurship.
The federal highway system and urban roadway development gave rise to the car-based, American lifestyle characterized by suburban sprawl, malls and the big box store. It was an ode to prosperity as each generation bequeathed a higher standard of living to the next. This was the American Dream, and for a few decades it actually worked.
As Dr. Richard Wolff from the New School so clearly lays out in this lecture from 2009, the 1970’s was the beginning of the end. Since then, corporate profits have consistently soared while wages have stagnated, remaining at virtually the same level. The rise of productivity coupled with flat lining wages allowed corporations to acquire massive wealth, while the workforce they employed had no choice but to turn to credit cards to bridge the gap between income and their desire to continue to living the American Dream.
General Motors, was among the first companies to take advantage of the American working class’ new plight, and decided to go into the mortgage lending business, expanding the scope of their original car loan business, GMAC. The General Motors Acceptance Corporation kick-started what would become the credit card/debt boom in the United States. The automobile, in particular, would be used as the asset, which underpinned the burgeoning credit-based economy. Linchpin of the small loan industry, cars have been used to both issue loans and secure credit lines using the vehicle as collateral.
Television is riddled with car commercials, that flash financing and leasing terms on the screen. Every movie and TV series, almost without exception, promotes the idea of car ownership as a status symbol, rite of passage and the key to all your dreams come true, especially as it relates to sexual prowess. Anyone who knows the history of the diamond trade and how DeBeers manipulated public perception through movies and stealthy advertising techniques to literally create a market out of thin air, knows this is not an accident.
The unpolished truth is that cars are little more than debt traps. Gateway credit drugs designed to hook people on a lifetime of interest payments and modern-day indentured servitude. The literal American nightmare.
The children and grandchildren of the ‘exilio’ have heard the stories of dispossession and betrayal. If “El Sueño Americano” makes a cameo, it carries with it a certain melancholy, double entendre that reveals the real dream of their redemptive return to the island. This place called Miami is really just a way-station. It was never part of the plan. Smart or otherwise.
If the past keeps informing our actions in the present, then we are simply sowing the seeds for history to repeat itself. At some point, you have to let go. Miami is ready to move on. Francis X. Suárez is the first Miami-born Mayor the city has ever had. His father, County Commissioner Xavier Suárez, is one of the few voices in the County who seems resolutely against building more toll roads and regularly advocates for better transit solutions, though he, too, has been known to indulge in the occasional fawning over personal internal combustion engines.
The Columbus High alum, Francis Suárez, has hitched his wagon to Beckham’s soccer stadium as the first major project of his era. The wisdom of this move is yet to be seen, but the city’s very recent history with sports stadiums does not augur a good outcome. A serious lack of transparency in the process and the young leader’s full-on support of the massive development is concerning, to say the least. Hopefully, as the first native mayor, he will identify as a resident of this city first and foremost, understanding that Miami is not Havana 2.0 anymore.
Miami needs leadership that sees the city as more than a tourist trap or a preferred destination for asset flight of Latin American grifters. It’s time for the people of this community to stand up and demand a public transit system on par with the enormous potential of this beautiful place. The cost of neglecting transit for decades is already manifesting, and will ultimately inflict a terrible toll on the future of Miami if nothing is done to stop the irresponsible, short-sighted and tone-deaf approaches we have endured for years.
Our commissioners and representatives keep dreaming about America. But, this is our bed and we’re the ones laying in it. It’s time to wake up.
MIAMI, FL – Grant Stern’s Only in Miami radio show (880 The Biz Radio) held a Transit Town Hall yesterday evening in Wynwood’s popular venue, Shots.
Florida Rep. Kionne McGhee (D) spoke eloquently about the pressing issues facing residents of Miami on transit as part of a panel, which also included Transit Alliance co-founder, Marta Viciedo, Miami-Dade Commission candidate for District 6, Maryin Vargas, and Miami-Dade Commission Chairman Esteban Bovo chiming in remotely over the phone.
McGhee has emerged as a vocal opponent of County Mayor Gimenez’ BRT proposal for South Dade, that was recently unveiled and looks to replace the original plans for a rail extension. The Representative for District 117 has demonstrated an ability to cut through the political noise, and express the overwhelming support for rail among the people of Miami.
Proponents of Miami-Dade Transit are fond of describing it as a world class system; a term that has garnered much derision among its regular social media critics (yours truly included). Indeed, it is no mystery that political and financial challenges plaguing Miami-Dade Transit have made it one of the worst public transportation systems in the nation, and many factors play a role in the complete disaster that is Miami’s public transportation. But, what really takes it over the top, and puts it in a class of its own is the pervasive rudeness, lack of compassion and disdain for MDT commuters by its public-facing staff, like bus drivers and third-party security guards.
While there are certainly exceptions of drivers and security guards working at MDT who approach their jobs with a courteous disposition, and show a willingness to help a lost passenger or answer a question, it is undeniable that many more take a much dimmer view of the people they serve, and refuse to even engage in the most basic forms of polite behavior.
Using Miami-Dade Transit, one often gets the impression that our patronage is resented by the people manning the buses and train stations. A distinct air of contempt is present in many of the day-to-day interactions people have with Miami-Dade Transit staff. A simple question like “When are you leaving?”, when a bus you’ve been waiting on for thirty minutes arrives, and the driver decides to take a break, will elicit a death-stare before you get an answer, if you get one at all.
The Chicken or the Egg
Frustration runs deep in everything related to Miami-Dade Transit. From broken promises to broken buses, from terrible traffic to ridiculous schedules, everybody’s pissed.
Are drivers and other MDT staff simply reacting to users lashing out at the system’s egregious inefficiencies or the other way around? In my personal opinion, formed after years of riding Miami’s buses and trains, there is a massive cultural component within MDT, that is to blame for most of the issues in the customer service department.
There’s no doubt, however, that angry and exasperated riders play a major role in exacerbating an already delicate situation, and contribute to deteriorating attitudes among those behind the wheel of MDT’s buses and others who deal with the public on their behalf.
Nevertheless, it is the Transit Department’s responsibility to make sure the system’s users feel welcomed and respected. A modicum of civility should be the minimum requirement for any person tasked with a job that serves the public in some way, and especially one that represents an entire city. Ideally, they would display a genuine desire to be helpful and informative.
Miami-Dade Transit users have a lot in common with the late and great comedian, Rodney Dangerfield. We get no respect. Mainly, this lack of regard for bus and train riders is expressed in an absence of effective environmental design and an embarrassing paucity of information when something goes wrong and passengers are stranded on Metromover or Metrorail tracks.
Departing from any of the three end-point terminals of the Metrorail, such as Dadeland South, Airport Station or Palmetto, can turn out to be a game of Black Jack (another of Rodney’s favorite things) should you want to get on the next train out, and there happens to be a train on both sides of the track. You won’t find a single piece of signage or hear any kind of announcement that will tell you which train to board. Your only recourse is to spot the elusive train conductor when he or she is on their way to the front or hope that only one of the trains has closed doors, allowing you to pick the other one by process of elimination. But, even then you might be wrong.
Similarly, distinguishing between the green and orange lines of the Metrorail can prove less than straightforward. Even though the recently installed screens on all Metrorail platforms purports to display the color of the incoming train, this information is not always accurate, and only a glimpse of the crooked paper sign taped to the conductor’s windshield can confirm it.
The scope of PA announcements on the Metrorail and Metromover are quite limited, as well, and live updates are so rare, you’d think the only microphone is set up in some janitor closet down a little-used hallway in one of MDT’s out-of-the-way facilities. Perhaps the one that leads to that bathroom no one wants to use because it only gets cleaned once a month.
Another way MDT shows a want of consideration for their customers are the neglected state of their facilities, including public restrooms, elevators and a dearth of waste bins in many stations, as well as the vehicles themselves.
The filth inside the trains and buses is appalling. Several train cars have large holes running along the side paneling and even a few on the floors of the cars. Mice have been caught peeking through by users’ camera phones. Buses don’t seem to get cleaned at all, beyond a cursory trash removal, and roaches are a common sight in the older models.
Toilet paper scarcity in Metrorail restrooms has been documented by freelance writer and journalist, Maria de Los Angeles, a.k.a., “Vice Queen Maria” in her scatological meditation during her adventures using Miami-Dade Transit.
Elevators in the various train and Metromover stations also serve to demonstrate MDT’s disregard for its users. The constant breakdowns can be attributed to the underlying political high jinks, that result in lack of funding for proper mechanical maintenance, but what about the rancid urine smell?
Low Hanging Fruit
Obviously, the problems facing Miami-Dade Transit as a result of municipal graft and other issues are very complicated. But, there’s no reason the current system cannot be improved at the most primary level, which is customer service and routine sanitation.
It might not fix the system’s underlying shortcomings, but it will make the road there more tolerable, and less likely to be littered with half-eaten apples like the one I nearly sat on the other day on my way home.
They say the only sure things in life are death and taxes. But, in Miami, we might as well add late trains and buses to that tired phrase. And tired, we are. Tired of waiting for our city leaders to put aside blatant self-interest and crony-capitalist tendencies to finally do something about public transit here.
Declining ridership has been the result of people encountering a system so bad, many prefer to sit in I-95’s parking lot day after day than face Miami-Dade Transit’s interminable delays and breakdowns.
With bumper-to-bumper traffic becoming a regular occurrence, Miami residents are desperate for a functional transit system, that offers respite from an increasingly onerous daily commute. Despite this, Mayor Carlos Gimenez has decided to abandon the platform he ran on to get reelected, and sponsor yet another toll-road initiative, while floating pie-in-the-sky technologies for mass transit, that only serve to derail the conversation.
Unfortunately for us, the masters of illusion who run the Magic City have only made what amount to cosmetic changes to a decaying transit system, despite collecting billions from taxpayers, who are beginning to grasp that they’ve been taken for a ride of a completely different kind.
The incompetence runs deep, and decades of bad relations with the transit union only makes the situation that much worse for riders, who are the ones who ultimately pay the steepest price.
Off The Rails
County Mayor, Carlos Gimenez, and friends, rolled out the first of the new Metrorail cars a few months ago to much self-congratulatory fanfare. A big photo op party was held at the Airport Metrorail station, with beleaguered Transit director, Alice Bravo, and other municipal luminaries cutting ribbons and boarding the new Hitachi-manufactured 4-car train for a private inaugural ride.
The tone-deaf “leaders” chose a weekday morning to have their ceremony, disrupting travel times for actual commuters. Only four new cars were actually put into service. Not even enough to make one complete six-car train, as the original Metrorail once had (according to legend); but enough to hold a press conference and unveil a cheap plaque.
Since that banner day in December of last year, the gradual introduction of more new train cars, which had been scheduled for two new cars a month, has hit a troubling, if predictable, delay. Many of the spanking new train cars have already suffered similar mechanical malfunctions, that took the old trains decades to manifest, like doors that do not open and broken air conditioning causing them to be removed from service on several occasions.
Cynical Metrorail users have christened the new trains with mythological monickers like “Unicorn” and “Centaur” due to the improbability of actually riding one. But, even if they’re fortunate enough to catch an elusive, clean car with functioning A/C, their good luck is likely to be offset by having to cram against other riders like sardines in the packed train.
The Metrorail, of course, is far from the only problem in the Miami-Dade Transit ecosystem. Buses are an even worse proposition for anyone looking to use it.
Anyone who has sat (or likely stood) at a Miami-Dade bus stop with the intention of catching one, has invariably come across the fact that MDT buses do not keep their schedule. Not only are they late on the regular, many simply never show up. “Ghost buses” are an everyday affair in Miami, and can make an already long wait, a cruel and frustrating affair.
Hour-long wait times for buses in Miami is not only common, it is inevitable if you are a regular rider. The only exception is if you’re a tourist leaving the airport. Miami is very interested in getting you to your hotel as quickly as possible, so you can start spending your money in South Florida. But, if you plan on relying on public transportation for sight-seeing or getting around, you’re better off staying in, and calling for room service.
In spite of this, MDT is extending wait times for some of the most used routes and even cutting them altogether. The reason cited for these cuts is lack of funding, which is really just lack of political will by Gimenez and his sycophantic chorus of self-interested County commissioners.
Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart, who literally chairs the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development subcommittee, has stated repeatedly that he would see to it that Miami-Dade County gets the necessary funds to expand and improve its mass transit system, but so far Mayor Gimenez has chosen to break campaign promises and is angling, again, to build more space-wasting asphalt toll-roads.
Next Stop: Conundrum
At this point, with such a disastrously inefficient transit system perpetually neglected by an entrenched political class, what is the way forward for a city in dire need of transit options?
The advent of Uber and other ride sharing services has provided some relief to the transit-dependent residents of Miami, but they are also a contributing factor to the increased congestion of our streets, and while these apps are good in a pinch, they are not a mass transit solution.
Likewise, the privately run and free Miami Trolley, is another play for tourists and not genuine option for moving across the city on a daily basis. These low-capacity, and torturously slow retro buses are further hampered by capricious drivers, who have no compunction about leaving their trollies, full of passengers, in the middle of a route to make a Taco Bell run. To make matters worse, Miami Trolley route frequencies are completely unpredictable.
The only positive transit stories with a semblance of efficiency occur within the various incorporated cities inside Miami-Dade County. Services like the Coral Gables Trolley, which has been efficiently operated for decades, works well for the “City Beautiful’s” downtown area. Miami Beach has also developed a good trolley system as of late, and in North Miami, the Haitian community took the initiative long ago with the jitneys.
Maybe it’s time to forget about letting the County have anything to do with transit, since their interests clearly lie elsewhere, and have shown no responsibility in terms of managing and maintaining the current system. Perhaps a more local approach is called for, with cities themselves receiving federal or County funds to develop their own transit systems and only centralizing the payment systems, to facilitate logistical issues like bus or rail transfers.
The bottom line is that Miami-Dade County has proven unequal to the task of running a mass public transit system, and that is unlikely to change in the near future or even a generation.
Several Counties in South Florida came together recently on a contingency plan in case of an unprecedented sea-level rise event. Mass evacuations are contemplated, and considerable resources have been allocated to prepare for this possibility.
If things don’t change, we can always look on the bright side. Our terrible transit system could drive millions out of Miami, making this end-of-the-world scenario less daunting.
Survivors will tell tales of magical vehicles that ran atop copper tracks high above the city. Instead of horned equines, with flowing white manes, that jump over rainbows, unicorns will become metaphors about lost mobility, and a new day will dawn as our descendants strive to reach their Valhalla.