» 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.