Juicy BRT Bait
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.
Today, @miamidadetpo took historic step towards the delivery of the #SMARTplanMiami and providing #SouthDade residents enhanced premium transportation alternatives. #OurCounty pic.twitter.com/jdrKv1SHfR
— Chair Esteban Bovo (@CommBovo) August 30, 2018
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.
— Doug Hanks (@doug_hanks) August 30, 2018
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.