Building Connections in Miami’s Urban Core

» The city’s existing transit system doesn’t adequately address transportation needs in some of the country’s most densely populated neighborhoods.

Compared to more successful rapid transit systems, Miami’s Metrorail has never come to define the lifestyle of a significant portion of the metropolitan area’s population. Rather, the 22-mile elevated line, which runs from the western extent of Miami-Dade County to its southern border, has served as something as a sideshow, serving less than one third of the number of people who take the bus. The line has a future — it provides the excellent, reliable service every recent rapid transit system offers — but any investments in the medium-term will have to come in some other mode, because Miami cannot justify either the cost or the low ridership projections of a new heavy rail project.

A surprising conclusion, considering that just three years ago the Miami-Dade transit agency had plans for significant new metro lines running nine miles north to 215th Street and thirteen miles west east to Florida International University. Poor management of tax revenues meant to pay for the line expansions, little interest from the federal government in paying for a part of the costs, and the recession have doomed the proposals, and they have been scuttled, at least for now. All that’s left: a 2.4-mile fingertip of a line running from the existing Earlington Heights Station to a new stop near the airport.

Miami, in other words, is in no shape to pay for another Metrorail line. But that might be good news.

The city has seen serious growth in the last decade, building up an impressive skyline from Brickell north through downtown into Edgewater, buoyed by the strong urban real estate market. Though apartment sales were left for dead after the crash, in recent months, they appear to be coming back. Midtown Miami has evolved into an arts district. Downtown is being rejuvenated through huge government investments in new parks and cultural centers. Across the bay in Miami Beach — a separate municipality — the resorts along the Atlantic have only densified.

Yet the majority of these places have no direct access to fixed-guideway transit, either in the form of Metrorail or Metromover (which runs people-mover services downtown), despite their heavy population growth and very urban characteristics. In response, leaders on both sides of the bay have called out for new investment.

Plans for Miami Transit

The City of Miami has since 2006 been discussing plans for a center-city streetcar, illustrated in yellow on the map above. It would circulate in a series on one-way loops through downtown, up to Midtown, and west into the Health District/Civic Center Area.

But why a streetcar, when the Metromover could easily be extended north and west, without having to duplicate corridors downtown? Metromover is a popular service, providing free transit to 30,000 riders a day who benefit from trains every three minutes. But the biggest obstacles to the network’s expansion are aesthetic: Metromover is elevated above the street, disrupting the views of pedestrians and creating an awkward interface between transit stations and the sidewalk. Similarly, it is expensive to build a system that requires a fully reserved right-of-way, such as Metromover.

So a cheap-running streetcar line has presented itself as the best option for Miami politicians.

Those advocating for new transit to Miami Beach have harped on a similarly conceived new light rail line, to run in street right-of-ways in Miami and Miami Beach but in its own corridor along the bridge between the two, as the ideal future system. That project, which is illustrated in pink above, would require a series of complex one-way loops downtown, where commuters would have to choosing between Metromover lines, a Metrorail line, and two streetcars, all running in their own corridors.

These separate proposals, though currently out of commission because of a lack of political willpower and money, are generally good ideas: they connect people from downtown to the metropolitan area’s most significant centers of activity. Yet the disordered, confused manner in which the lines have been planned would be a disservice to the residents of Miami and likely result in low ridership.

There is an alternative, and it’s based on legibility, simplification, and quality of service.

Sorting Out Miami Transit

What if the plans for the Miami streetcar and the Miami Beach light rail line were incorporated into one project? The two lines could run together downtown for about 1.5 miles on parallel streets until reaching Government Center station, where an interchange with Metrorail would be possible — as would a connection to Tri-Rail commuter services if a planned extension into downtown is developed. This shared track would ensure that customers know to find all light rail service offered downtown in the same place. There will be no confusion about which tracks lead where; rather, riders will simply have to wait for the right train.

Instead of planning a disorderly series of midtown streetcar routes, Miami could offer its residents a simple three-mile north-south line running parallel to the bay to the Design District, following 2nd Avenue and Biscayne Boulevard for most of the time, with a switch to Miami Avenue at the northernmost segment of the line. Though the branch to the Health District articulated in the city’s streetcar plan has some merits, it ultimately seems wasteful, considering that Metrorail already provides service to the area; the same could be said of the proposed line running through Overtown. This is especially true because the city’s primary density is on the waterfront, and transit should be located there.

A light rail line to Miami Beach is entirely reasonable, but the large loop previously proposed would be confusing, especially since clockwise and counter-clockwise services would operate differently. A simpler approach would bring trains seven miles across the MacArthur Causeway, east-west along 5th street, and then north-south along Washington and Collins Avenues, continuing as far north as the famed Fontainebleau Hotel at 44th Street.

Future extensions south into Brickell or west into Little Havana from the downtown line at Government Center would be relatively simple to plan, since the main downtown tracks for light rail would already be reserved.

The overall approach for this first phase: a 11.5-mile project whose scope would dramatically alter the provision of transit to Miami’s urban core. But implementation would only be successful if the city abandons the streetcar approach that puts trains in mixed traffic and adopts a more expensive strategy that would require handing over vehicular lanes to transit vehicles, closing some side streets to through traffic, and incorporating automated traffic-light-changing mechanisms — all necessary steps if transit is to be quick enough to attract a sustainable number of passengers. Fortunately, this can be accomplished pretty easily and with few negatives using the scheme noted above, which would place one-way lines on parallel streets. Most of the streets considered for operation are wide enough to lose one vehicular lane without any serious effect on traffic.

A focus on the waterfront may seem unreasonable for a transit investment of this scope. Shouldn’t inland neighborhoods benefit? Will there be enough ridership along the thin strip of land bordering the bay and ocean? In Gold Coast, Australia, those questions are being tested. There, an eight-mile light rail system is being constructed, with operations planned for 2014. With similar densities as Miami, and with an alignment just blocks from the coast for most of the route, the city expects 40,000 daily riders.

If Miami could replicate the investment, with light rail lines running to Miami Beach and to Midtown, it would probably benefit as many people. One major advantage of the massive build-up of residential units along the metropolitan area’s dual coastlines is that it has basically ensured success for any fixed-guideway system positioned there.

Yet there appears to be no political constituency for a project of this nature in Miami. Yesterday’s election of Tomás Regalado as the city’s mayor is likely to introduce a new era of fiscal austerity and an end to the big plans that defined the administration of previous mayor Manny Diaz. Miami-Dade Transit is hardly capable of financing its present services, and it will be unable to plan any new extensions for the next ten years at least.

But these facts don’t mean the need for better public transportation along the city’s waterfront will disappear. One can only hope that if and when such new transit is offered, its routes are legible, simple to understand, and of high quality.

10 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • …Thirteen miles to the west, I presume you mean. There’s not much Miami left past Collins Avenue.

  • Kevin

    I really like the realignment options, they really do make, much more sense. Unfortunately, Joe Sanchez was elected mayor yesterday, so these plans are going to be very difficult to pass under his reign, but you should seriously send these plans to Miami-Dade Transit. If anything, they could just see that people out there are paying attention and care about the future of transit in Miami. Good job!

  • Andrew S

    As always, Yonah, your suggestions are a vast improvement over the crazy tangle of proposals out there. If there was some enlightened politician who had the will to get things moving, this would be a great place to start.

    But I still just can’t help but wonder if this sort of big investment in transit makes sense in a place like Miami. What they have today just feels like such a boondoggle, I’m hard pressed to believe in a transit future in Miami.

  • FYI Tomas Regalado was elected Mayor, not Joe Sanchez.

    You left out the plans to use the FEC Corridor for rail.
    http://www.transitmiami.com/2009/10/09/fec-corridor-update/
    The use of this corridor for light rail would replace any immediate need for the ‘midtown’ lrt (or streetcar).

    Your observation regarding the beach extension to the north is right on. That would make the most sense. I have been talking to the DDA and MDT to try to combine Baylink with the East/West Orange line as light rail. This approach would connect the airport to the beach (a fundamental connection in my opinion), while also providing a direct link to downtown from the burbs. That line could use existing ROW along the expressway (not best solution, but cheaper than running it directly down 8th street).
    Unfortunately at this point all mention of rail (light of heavy) is beyond the radar of transit officials here. After getting burned by the public backlash from the PTP we will be lucky if we get a couple of ‘BRT lite’ lines. Very discouraging. The east/west line will end up being some type of bus line (not necessarily BRT).

    Some local officials have expressed to me that strategic Metromover expansions make sense (in particular the Brickell loop), but that is also not included in the latest TDP 10 year update. Sigh. Oh well.

  • Kevin

    My mistake, it is Tomás Regalado that was elected mayor.

  • TransitDave

    The reason we didn’t get more metrorail from the PTP is simple: Because the M-D county commissioners knew that the feds would not allowfederal funds to be wasted in the same manner as with the Earlington Heights link to the airport, which, lest we forget, is being built without federal funds, for much the same reason. With the Earlingington heights project, which is costing half a billion dollars for 2.4 miles of guideway and one station, we have an example of everything that is wrong in Miami-Dade’s transit system: A badly needed project delivered years late, wildly over original cost estimates, and which ignored all public input concerning the route. The locally preferred alternative would have allowed an additional station where there currently is a bus maintenance yard, a perfect site for a transit oriented development project that could have breathed new life into a blighted area. Instead, the county commission dictated the route, rendering the project ineligable for federal funding. This occurred almost immediately after the approval of the PTP tax in 2002. We should have known then what a sham the PTP plan was, shame on us for ever voting any money for them to control. Miami Dade transit needs an independant authority, like the MDX. Then we might see some of these plans come to light.

  • John W

    If they were clever, they’d have a design competition for the Miami Beach LRT – it’s calling out for a contemporary version of streamline moderne. And as that’d likely be a hit with the tourists on top of everything else, that’s a few more dollars on the bottom line.

  • Wasn’t Miami’s metro incomplete? I thought the reason for low ridership was because the city only built one line of the system, rather than the whole system. That’s the same thing that happened in San Juan, PR.

    • Thad

      Well of course it is incomplete. Miami is the least fiscally responsible city often ending up in the top poorest in the country (not income wise). The county never has money for anything. In addition to that, Miami was planned without any anticipation for future growth. Just look at the major roads. They are pretty narrow and development is built up so close to the street, there isn’t room to add another lane if they wanted to. Even the expressway system sucks (it’s usually faster to get places via city streets than the expressways).

      They make dumb decisions like removing the FEC tracks south of Dadeland to build th South-Dade Busway which was intended to be converted to rail anyway. It would have made sense to just build LRT in the first place in small increments, by the time it reached Homestead, it would have been tremendously needed. It then could have headed west along Kendall Drive connecting the fairly large Kendall area and Baptist Hospital to the Metrorail at Dadeland South. Now it’ll be more expensive and probably won’t happen for atleast another 25 years.

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