Miami’s Long-Sought Plans for Metro Extensions Dissolve as Funding Disappears

» Northern extension to Broward County line to be pulled out of federal New Starts process as limited tax revenues hit home. A reconsideration of priorities was in order anyway.

Miami-Dade County voters were promised way too much when they were asked to endorse a half-cent sales tax increase for better transit back in 2002. Not only would they get much more bus service, but also the construction of two new Metrorail extensions, more than doubling the size of the system by 2020.

Suffice it to say that despite electoral approval of the funding source, little has improved. Thanks to a reduction in tax receipts seen across the country and corruption within the transit agency, bus offerings have been cut back to levels not much different than those available around ten years ago. The one Metrorail line that has entered construction, the 2.4-mile AirportLink, has seen its cost double to more than half a billion dollars and its opening date delayed to April 2012.

Miami’s first and only Metrorail corridor opened in 1984 and now includes 22 miles of service to about 70,000 daily riders.

After a year of confusion about the status of the full “Orange Line,” which would have eventually included links west to Florida International University and north to the Broward County line, Miami-Dade County’s manager has announced that he will remove the project from the federal New Starts applicant pool. The County has been unable in recent years to convince Washington of the merits of the project, thanks both to difficulties assuring local support for transit operations and low projected ridership numbers; it has repeatedly received medium-low ratings from the Federal Transit Administration, making it unable to qualify for aid. In addition, the county’s sales tax revenues have been too low to even support a “light” bus rapid transit program along the NW 27th Avenue corridor where trains were supposed to go.

The North extension, also known as Orange Line Phase II, would have cost $1.6 billion and carry about 23,000 daily riders along 9.5 miles of tracks, a miserable investment-to-return ratio. The even more expensive 10.6-mile East-West line has been assumed to be dead for years.

This is bad, albeit unsurprising, news for Miami, which has been particularly hard hit by the recession. And it’s not alone: Other cities, including Dallas and Charlotte, are suffering similar fates. Nonetheless, the fact that Miami now must reevaluate both its transit funding system and its future priorities could lead to better thinking about cost-effective ways to advance the future of the city’s public transportation. It could also force local leaders to push for more sustainable funding.

The problem with Miami’s decision-making when it developed the Orange Line program ten years ago was that it envisioned very expensive metro service to areas that do not have the passenger demand for much more than upgraded buses. The low ridership estimates for the North corridor attest to the fact that areas to which extensions would run are of relatively low densities, with few big user generators along the route. Meanwhile, potentially more attractive routes through the county’s most populated areas, including along the waterfront and to places like Miami Beach and Little Havana, were simply not considered priorities by a board skewed towards the needs of the county’s north and west sides.

Moreover, the project was pursued without serious thinking as to how the system would work in the long term. Because both extensions would have been from sections of the existing system north of downtown, the Metrorail line would have become seriously unbalanced, with far more service needed to northern destinations than to areas south of downtown, causing operational difficulties. Even the first section to the airport, a one-station spur, will produce some difficulties, since Miami doesn’t have the funds to increase service dramatically and trains already only run every seven to eight minutes at rush hour and every 30 minutes on weekends. How attractive can an airport link be to customers who are forced to wait more than half an hour for a train?

The county does not have the funds to ponder major transportation projects at the moment, though it could focus on simple and cheap bus improvements like installing signal priority at intersections, improving customer information displays, and marking off dedicated lanes. These require no significant spending, just good management. Does Miami-Dade have what it takes?

Once the economy recovers and county board members wake up to the benefits of increased spending on public transportation, though, there should be a countywide rethink about the best way to use varying modes of transit. In the past, I’ve suggested that routes into Midtown and Miami Beach likely could garner enough passengers to merit the installation of cheap street-running light rail (though probably not Metrorail). In other areas, bus rapid transit is sufficient. But until the county’s back on its financial feet, nothing is going to be built.

33 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Just like San Juan’s Tren Urbano got cancelled.

  • Wad

    Is the 30-minute weekend service because of the single-tracking for maintenance (it notes that in the schedule) or is it because ridership evaporates?

  • xerxesjc28

    No it is because of poor funding. I have used the train on weekends and it sucks, waiting 30 minutes (as much as a bus) for the train to arrive. The stations (at least the more heavily used southern ones) get pretty packed.

    The thing to know is that of those who use the train down here they really like it, they find it fast and efficient. The only problem is that it is only one line. Many people would love to take the train and more would be if the original current line had been better built.

    Truth be told the line that were to be built, especially the East/West or Orange line to FIU, was badly conceived. They were not going to go to Dolphin Mall (probably the most heavily shopped mall in the county) or Miami International Mall (which is just a few block to the East. Missing out of tons of shopper or workers who could have used the train on a daily basis, including the students from FIU.

  • poncho

    A metro line from the airport to Miami Beach via Downtown would seem to make sense, is it true the taxi drivers fought this back when the system was planned 30 years ago? Why not from now on, start from scratch and get the board to throw all their support behind this corridor?

    Personally I’m of the belief that if a transit system already has a certain rail transit mode they should as much as possible continue with that mode for expansion instead of introducing another transit mode and requiring another transfer. I realize heavy rail is expensive but they’ve already got the existing system in Miami.

  • Cody

    A Metro line to FIU and South Beach are badly needed. FIU has over 40,000 students, a major football stadium, arenas, and whatnot, and South Beach, is one of the most visited places on Earth. Having Metro service to both destinations is crucial for Miami.

    The east-west line that was originally proposed was good, but would be much more successful as a light-rail system directly from Downtown along either SW 8th St or Flagler Street ending at FIU. This would drop the price tag, and bring Metro service to the densely populated neighborhoods of Little Havana, Westchester and Sweetwater.

    Miami-Dade Transit needs to focus on light-rail. Light rail to FIU and South Beach, and a streetcar to the Design District.

  • Fred

    On the map it should be “Opa-locka”, not “Opa-Locka”

  • Dan

    It being so difficult to expand any American rail systems nowadays, I find it astonishing any of them were built to begin with. You wonder how Barcelona can be expanding their metro at a furious pace while Miami can even build ostensibly cheaper elevated lines.

  • Tom West

    If tax receipts are down, surely projects should be delayed until there’s enough money, rather than cancelled?

    This seems to happen all over the USA – local sales tax receipts are less than expect, so projects are cancelled rather than delayed. Can anyoen explain why this is?

    (And why does “receipts” have a “p” in it???)

  • Gerardo

    To follow up on Poncho’s comment about developing extant transit modes–I’d like to see the County shift its focus to smaller expansions of Metrorail within the urban core. The two possible routes that seem to me to provide the most bang for the buck would run from Earlington Heights east to Midtown, and from the current Douglas Road station to the MIC.

  • Gerardo

    Oh, and there’s another upside to this disappointing news. When the East-West line was in the planning stages, vocal NIMBYs fought for, and got, an alignment that ran from the MIC along the 836 expressway, rather than through the dense urban neighborhood of Flagami. If plans for the line are revived ten years from now or so, area residents might be open to a more sensible alignment.

  • AlexB

    Based on some of the comments here and the information in this posts and previous posts about transit in Miami, it seems like a whole new line from FIU to South Beach with a downtown connection would be a better idea than a branch.

    The ridership projections were lousy, but was there any chance of redevelopment, densification, etc. that could dramatically increase ridership someday?

  • xerxesjc28

    Maybe, some TOD(transit Oriented Development) could have happened like has happened on the soutern portions of the current Metro Rail line. However, though it is encoured TOD would have been difficult since the E/W or Orange line would have passed by an elevated highway. Meaning there would not have been much room to build anything,it was probably done to not anger voters.

    It was one of the problems when the train was being discussed in public meeting, many complained (from sweetwater which is just north of FIU) that the train would makes to much noise etc.

    BTW, if anyone is wondering why on earth does the current metro rail line not go to the airport even though it passes so close to it, I have heard it has to do with the fact that it got a lot of opposition due to NIMBY’s.

  • J

    Forget metrorail, what Miami needs is a much bigger metromvoer system

  • Cody

    ^^ Metromover to perhaps southern Brickell or the Orange Bowl makes a lot of sense. Other than that, it’s a slow system for commuters.

  • Tim

    I am 44 yrs old now, and I do not want to be an old man before these metro rail projects are done. If the money is not there; than all of the economic situation the county and city needs to be explained to voters and an increase possibly with a sales tax to 8% is needed. Cheap fixes seem to be all the county can afford; even if the half cent tax is better managed and better management of the current funds overall is done. I feel it has to go to voters to hopefully raise the sales tax to 8% ( A full one cent used exclusively for Metro Rail) , plus funds from newly installed automatic tolls used exclusively for Metro Rail should be used. This increase would all be legally binding to the County/State and Legally binding to the Federal Government once they see we have a plan in place. All of these funds would be used for Metro Rail ONLY! Not past debt, not towards buses , and not towards light rail. Let the half cent that has already been passed support those areas. Cheap fixes with buses and light rail is not the answer. This community needs heavy rail (Elevated Metro Rail) to support this community of the future and go to all of the places, plus more than those promised back in 2002. This includes out west on Kendall, down to Florida city along US1, up to the Broward County Line, out west to FIU on 836, all along the 826, and to Miami Beach. Heavy Rail will ensure that expensive upgrades would not be needed as much in the future and do this before the price tag for such a thing gets even more expensive as time goes on. Heavy Rail is also better because it does not compete at all with the traffic around them like buses and street cars. Light Rail is not the solution to go to these far distances and handle the ridership loads of the future. Two of these major projects with Metro Rail need to be well under construction within 5 years and not 20 to 30 years from now. At least 3 different lines need to go Miami International Airport also from this. If someone else can think of a better funding for this in this time frame then I am open for suggestions as long as it is all Heavy elevated Rail. I have lived in Miami my whole life and I want to see the best happen for this community that can happen!

  • Nathanael

    Somehow, Miami seems to manage to screw up its urban mass transit designs over and over again. This is just another example.

    Does anyone doubt that a Miami Beach extension would have been highly successful? Does anyone doubt that it would have gotten federal funding? Well, Miami refused to propose such an extension….

    • Thad

      Our biggest problem here in Miami is that we never planned any of our infrastructure in anticipation of the tremendous population and development booms that we have experienced. And it isn’t just mass transit, our roads suck too. And because we didn’t plan for expanding transit and roadways, it becomes ridiculously expensive and and would require so much overhaul, voters shoot down such proposals, like the Kendall commuter train. Metrorail is just never going to the beach because those viaducts are huge and ugly and the streets around the beach are too narrow to have concrete pillars and stations all in the middle. It would have to be LRT, like the streetcar Yonah proposed in that other article. The same can go for Kendall which has too many crucial left turn lanes and no room to widen the road or build stations and parking.

  • Cody

    The suburbs of Kendall don’t have enough density to support Metro expansion out west. The only place out west it should go is FIU, which is a huge economic powerhouse with 40,000+ students. Rail service needs to be provided between Aventura and Downtown along Biscayne Blvd, to South Beach, and possibly from MIA to the Grove via Miracle Mile.

    • Thad

      When I said Kendall I meant a)specifically Kendall Drive and b) only the eastern and denser stretch from Dadeland to 117th Street. I also agree that Metrorail is not suitable for this corridor given the way it has been developed with dense limited access developments that make walking less efficient and the fact that it would be an engineering nightmare that would not only make transit use inefficient, but make driving just as bad, worsening an already pretty bad situation of long commutes, congestion, and gridlock during rush hour.

      How ever a frequent (preferably dedicated lane) BRT service or even an at-grade LRT connecting with the Dadeland South Station in conjunction with the Kendall Commuter Rail along the CSX tracks from the zoo to the MIC would provide more options for the people on the eastern portion where high-frequency transit has a greater likelihood of success, to get out of their cars and the congestion caused by West Kendall commuters driving east in the morning to reach the Palmetto, U.S. 1, Dadeland, Metrorail, or wherever it is that they all commute to.

      This portion of Kendall is the only corridor at the southern end of Central Miami-Dade that should be a transit priority with more mid-rise apartment complexes and Dadeland has developed largely around the mall and the two Metrorail stations and can be an employment anchor along with Baptist Hospital, MDC-Kendall, and Town and Country redevelopment.

      While MDT should focus on the core first, it also needs to address the limited-road capacity problems in other parts of the county where adding more lanes isn’t feasible and better transit is the only real option.

  • Richard Alexander Duda

    I lived in Sweetwater for a short time, and went to FIU, and several good points have been made. There is NOT enough density there now–EXCEPT maybe FIU itself, and that is way way way out west. All around it is all single family and one- and two-story buildings.

    However, the buses east and west along Flagler (the 11) and SW 8th (the 8) are ALWAYS pretty heavily loaded, and even the “MAX” (limited stop) service doesn’t help much. The scheduling is awful. The MAX will crawl along for many stops BEHIND a local, instead of overtaking, because they don’t want to get AHEAD of schedule! It’s a frustrating ride.

    But, I can understand the Sweetwater people and their NIMBY attitude. Seems an alignment along SW 8th instead of along Flagler or to the North of Flagler would be better for getting to and from FIU, but then you miss the opportunities for the mall traffic. Ugh!

    The only other alternative is to go from FIU via Coral Way (SW 24th) where the 24 runs. This could tie in with the present Metro Rail near the Vizcaya station, or continue ENE on Coral Way through the “Roads” neighborhood, to S. Brickell.

    An extension of the Brickell people mover makes no sense to go as far west as FIU, because it’s FAR too slow. Maybe light rail IS the answer for a LOT of Miami-Dade’s problems. There could be light rail from downtown to SoBe, up Biscayne Boulevard through Midtown, Little Haiti, Biscayne Park, and into Miami Shores even? And west and WSW from downtown and Brickell.

  • Ocean Railroader

    If they start building light rail in this city it might be possible to rip out the thrid rail subway line and replace it with a light rail line running on the same bridges and passagways so that it could meet up with the other future light rail lines. This would be logical in that when you get on the thrid rail subway you would have to get off where the over head catenary begins and the thrid rail subway ends. Or they could build a light rail train that could take over head power from light rail catenary and from thrid rail powered track.

    • Thad

      I should have said this the first time around, but I really think that the system should have been light rail in the first place as it could have possibly used the pre-existing southern FEC corridor that it replaced and could have continued incremental expansion north and south along the corridor (you would just have to add the overhead centenary and build station platforms and using existing track). It also would be easier to integrate with at grade and grade separated sections where appropriate. LRT is appropriate for a lot of the corridors that have limited-road capacity, but don’t warrant Metrorail (which really isn’t running at it’s full capacity either). 8th street from Brickell Station to FIU, Douglas from Douglas Rd. Station to MIC, from Government Center down the MacArthur up Washington Ave and the Collins on the Beach, and Wynwood/Edgewater and the Design District along FEC (in a perfect world), are good places to start.

      Miami’s biggest problem is infrastructure capacity. There is greater capacity for north-south travel with three major expressways (The HEFT, Palmetto/826, and I-95), Metrorail and Tri-Rail (for those commuting up to Broward)than for east-west travel which relies on the Dolphin/836 and major arterials that are gridlocked during the rush periods. While we certainly don’t need Metrorail going down every major east-west street to lower density neighborhoods, there needs to be some other non-auto options for people to utilize as roads in some places cannot be widened and no county official would ever have enough power to plow another 6 lane highway through middle income neighborhoods out west.

  • Visionary

    ^ i agree a subway needs to get going, is a lot more expensive but it will pay off if is done on biscayne blvd and collins. how?….
    1. it brings alot more people together
    2. it brings business together from the north, like Broward to Downtown Miami
    3. it brings retail business
    4. it maintains the real state market up due to no elevated infrastruture.
    5. revenue to the city will increase dramatically
    6. will receieve world class status.
    7. tourism will increase
    if we fund these then we can fund the rest itself

    excuses: you can’t dig too deep (30ft) in south florida due to the biscayne aquafier.
    answer: poor knowledge “Miami Port Tunnel” will go as far as 100ft. With better engineer and technology it can be done without damaging the biscayne aquafier. and FUNDS!

    What could stop us?…
    US! we don’t like an increase of tax, we like our cars, we like to may high car insurance, we like to pay gas and fund other nations who want to kills us.
    and most important people who lobby against it like
    CAR INSURANCE PROVIDERS
    CAR DEALERS
    TAXI DRIVERS
    TOUR BUSES
    COMISSIONERS (yes we elect them but they brain wash us, or don’t deliver)
    STRONG CONSERVATIVE ORGANIZATIONS
    UNIONS AND SO ON…..

    IS BASICALLY US AGAINST THEM!.

    • John W

      Hmmm. That explains why I have yet to visit Miami. But once it has a subway, it’ll shoot to the top of my must see list. Build it and I (and my tourism dollars) will come.

      And, yes, I can see why tour-bus operators, who point out all of the city’s marvellous sights, would be so dead set against a train from which you can’t see a thing. A three-hour tour that you pay 25 bucks for is clearly threatened by competition from a contraption to get you from A to B for a tenth of the price. Sheesh.

  • Adam

    I am surprised nobody mentioned the proposed rail a long the FEC tracks. This is arguably the best solution and most likely to succeed. IT is on existing tracks, right away already exists and will conncect basically almost every major downtown from downtown miami to West Palm – some of the densest population and work centers in ALL OF FLORIDA. It will also connect with the metrorail, metromover, and the trirail further up north, creating a more efficient and connected system.

    • You’re right that the proposed rail has a better route. However, it uses legacy tracks, shared with freight trains, and plans to follow all FRA regulations. This means it has no chance of succeeding.

    • Jeff

      Most depressing is the fact that it will probably be run by the people that run Tri-Rail. The reason I find it depressing is that this group has no direct source of funding. The only reason Tri-Rail remains open is because the three counties (Dade, Broward, Palm Beach) provide funding, but if either one were to pull out Tri-Rail would most likely cease to exist. As I recall, Tri-Rail has been running in the red for several years now, this is why the state had to step in and provide some temporary funding.

  • Akiva

    The main problem is Miami politicians dont really care about improving public transportation in Miami

  • Bribro

    I like the idea of an extension north of the downtown to service Midtown Miami, where there is a little more population density, and with the right demographics. It would be great if a reasonable connection could be made through to the Brickell Ave. financial district, which I guess could be accomplished with a link to metrorail. But there is good expressway service for this route along I-95. The savings would be in traffic congestion and parking. I doubt there would be savings in commuting time.

    I saw the rail line that would provide this commute being taken up today, so it looks like the opportunity may be disappearing. Is anyone keeping track of what rail lines remain operational? The right of way is of course still there. BB

  • Alain R

    We spent $525 million in a new stadium, and yet the city lacks fundamental transportation infrastructure. The most touristic site ($$) of the city (MIAMI BEACH), which the most restrictive traffic (2 bridges) does not have a metro rail extension!!!… It is really pathetic!!! The worst, is that nobody cares, neither they are considering or planning it!!… Welcome to Miami!

  • Reedman

    The fundamental problem is that the farebox only covers one-third of the operating expenses. Obviously, with that financial structure, every expansion of the rail system is nothing more than a commitment to infinite civil service worker subsidies from taxes.

    The solution is simple: make the system pay its way. Set the fares to pay 100% of the expenses. Presently, no one should listen to the riders, since they are rent-seeking (if you don’t know what that means, look it up). There would be no question about expanding Metrorail if it functioned at a break-even level, instead of being a welfare program.

  • Amelia

    It is a shame we still have the train to nowhere that takes forever, has less cars, and because it is never on time, makes you late for work. Shame that politicians profited from 836 expansion. It would have been nice to have the metro run to Kendall, but then again…aren’t we in Miami Dade County where nothing makes sense? I have been a Dade County resident for more than 40 years, and we are still a wanna be major city with incredible potential..except public transportation….lol

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