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Where There Were Once Many Lines Planned, Just One Opens in Miami

» The failure of a local sales tax to produce revenues as expected should dampen excitement around the latest extension of Miami’s Metrorail system.

Last week, Georgia voters overwhelmingly denied the passage of the T-SPLOST referendum, which, among other things, would have provided $7.2 billion for transportation over the next ten years to the Atlanta region thanks to income from a 1¢ sales tax. About half of that funding would have gone to public transit operations and expansion; in the city of Atlanta itself, the program would have paid for the beginning of work on the Beltline transit corridor, a light rail line to Emory University, several BRT lines, and a MARTA heavy rail extension. Voters were clearly unconvinced of the value of the transportation investments, were motivated by anti-tax sentiment, and felt that the projects would not benefit them directly. The result may be decades of increasing traffic in the metropolitan area with few new alternatives.

Yet some voters also expressed another concern: That the proposed projects, despite their inclusion in the official list of priorities, would not actually be built. Their sentiments were not necessarily unreasonable. The $7.2 billion supposed to be generated by the tax was an estimate, and if the economy continues to underperform, it’s quite possible that the actual revenues collected could have been much lower. Moreover, the list of transportation priorities was itself based on project cost estimates, which, if you know anything about U.S. construction projects, are liable to increase wildly.

If anyone was paying attention to Miami, they might be especially skeptical of the tax’s value. There, voters passed a 1/2¢ sales tax increase in 2002 by a huge margin. They were promised an enormous expansion of rail transit service, with dozens of miles of new lines shooting out of the existing Metrorail system in virtually every direction. What they got in reality, however, was one project: The 2.4-mile, one-stop Orange Line extension to the Airport, which opened last weekend at a cost of $506 million. No other rail service is expected to be funded before 2035.

Nonetheless, the Airport extension, which will bring downtown Miami within a 15-minute trip of the airport, is an impressive addition to the city’s transit network. The terminus at the Miami Intermodal Center (MIC) is a beautiful feat of steel, concrete, and glass. By next year, the $2 billion MIC will allow for connections between Metrorail, Amtrak, Greyhound, rental cars, seven bus routes, and the region’s commuter Tri-Rail line. An automated people mover called MIA Mover already connects the complex to the terminals.

Miami’s Metrorail system, showing 2.4-mile extension to the airport and new Orange Line. Ridership in the southern part of the system is higher, so doubling service to the south is a reasonable decision. Source: Miami-Dade County. Read a critique of the new map from Cameron Booth.

The MIC station is expected to see 7,500 daily riders on Metrorail, a huge increase over the 66,000 daily riders currently recorded on the system’s 24.4 miles, according to APTA (up from about 45,000 a day in the late 1990s). Ridership on the system has been increasing relatively steadily since it opened in 1984, unsurprisingly considering the city’s growth during that period. Since 2000 population increase has been particularly quick, with the city now housing more than 408,000 people, a more than 10% increase over the past decade. Miami’s population density of more than 12,000 people per mile is now about the same as Chicago’s.

Thus the argument back in 2002 that something needed to be done to significantly improve the rail system. The People’s Transportation Plan, as it was known, was supposed to have raised $17 billion over 25 years, enough to guarantee the completion of a 10.6 east-west Metrorail corridor and 9.5-mile north corridor by 2016.

Several problems arose. The North Corridor, originally supposed to be the first project completed, repeatedly received poor ratings from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) thanks to low ridership estimates and poor management on the part of Miami-Dade transit. The FTA would have to contribute a significant portion of the project’s cost for it to be funded. At the same time, its projected price tag increased from $515 million to $1.63 billion. Similar problems plagued the East-West Corridor, of which the Airport Link was supposed to be the first phase. Indeed, the cost of this project doubled since initial estimates.

Meanwhile, the beginnings of the recession (which hurt Florida particularly badly) led to a decline in tax revenues. And the system, whose finances had been incorrectly tabulated in previous years, spent far more than expected on operating deficits and a new headquarters, leaving only the $400 million in local funding for the airport line.

By 2010, a partial expansion of bus service was basically entirely reversed, the other rail projects simply do not exist according to the Miami-Dade website, and the only improvements to the North Corridor have been in the form of an improved bus line.

Just as problematic, even when hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested in new transit capital, the system has had trouble providing the services that an effective public transportation network is supposed to offer. While Metrorail service has been increased slightly to provide for a distribution of 10-minute peak services on the two branches (the Orange Line to the airport and the Green Line to Palmetto, the other, older terminus), at nights and weekends, trains will leave the airport only every 30 minutes. Nobody should be expected to wait half an hour for a train at the airport when arriving on Saturday at midday. And fewer people will ride as a result. How could the funding for this essential purpose not be available?

It will be convenient for a large number of people to get easier access between Miami’s airport and its downtown without having to deal with traffic, and indeed, the city is one of many American cities prioritising airport rail links. Dallas has its own Orange Line light rail project currently under construction and planned to open in 2014* (Chicago coincidently also has an Orange Line to its Midway Airport). But how much value do these airport connections bring, anyhow?

As I have previously written, airport transit connections are promoted (and prioritised) by urban elites because they are frequent air travellers — and trips to the airport are often the only travel for which they can conceive personally using the transit system. But other investments, such as in the densest areas of the city, usually provide more benefit to the average inhabitant of a metropolitan region. Given Miami’s downtown-oriented growth, there is reason to suspect that new lines operating in the center city, rather than toward the periphery (as the north and east-west corridors would have) would have been more attractive to riders. In this vein, Branden Helms argues that airport stations rarely attract the patronage expected for them. Is Miami’s prediction of a 12% increase in its rail system ridership reasonable?

Does this mean Miami’s new Metrorail extension is a waste of funds? Not necessarily — especially considering Miami’s distinctive position as the “capital of the Caribbean” — attracting millions of visitors and business people each year through the airport. If the city’s growth continues to be based on its status in Latin America, the airport connection may be invaluable.

Miami, however, is a parable: Voters will not always receive that which they believe to have endorsed.

* The first segment of Dallas’ Orange Line opened last week as well, with new service provided between the existing Bachman Station and Irving Convention Center. Additional stops further north at North Lake College and Belt Line are expected to open in early December.

Image at top: New MIA Metrorail Station, from Miami-Dade County

52 replies on “Where There Were Once Many Lines Planned, Just One Opens in Miami”

The Tea Party may claim to have defeated the TSPLOST and many supporters called a vote against as racist, but the real reason most people cast a negative vote was the basis for Atlanta-centric projects placed in the project. This was a back-room old/new boy deal. It does not reflect Atlanta is no longer city centered. The metro area growth is suburban county to county, not suburban to city. If there a rail line built down the center of I-285 there would have been a lot more support.

If Atlanta had taken that approach they would have ended up in the same boat as Miami—promising lines that don’t have a chance at getting any federal funds (or riders). In most places, suburb-to-suburb rail just doesn’t pencil out—employment and population densities just can’t support it. Atlanta’s plan was so Atlanta-centric because that’s the place where new rail transit can be built cost-effectively

Miami’s airport line is very useful in that it goes from the airport and down the existing subway lines to one of the world’s largest criuse ship ports in the world. Now you don’t have to get on a bus or take a over priced taxi to get to the criuse ship ports which are only a few steps away.

Nope, the rail line doesn’t go anywhere near the cruise port. It would be at least a 45 minute walk. There is a weekday rush hour bus from downtown, but it is really not practical for cruisers. Cruisers will still be taking cabs or airport shuttles, though they could save a few bucks and time in traffic by taking the train downtown, especially if they are also staying in a downtown hotel.

They should have connected it to the Port of Miami through the new tunnel they built. That would have been worth the money! Haha Tourists could have landed at Miami and headed straight to the port or stopped at MetroRail if they wanted. Sad waste. They should expand to Homestead. Thanks for clarifying because it doesn’t connect to Port.

Unfortunately, that’s not true. The train leaves you in Downtown Miami and then you have to transfer to a bus to get to the port, and the bus only runs during rush hours. The #243 bus actually used to start at the Government Center station, but was moved to start at the Overtown station (which would mean it’s even less likely to get riders to the port considering Overtown’s reputation, even though it’s really on the edge of Overtown).

But at the very least, it connects you to hotels in Downtown & Brickell. But that’s all it really does. It doesn’t even connect you to South Beach.

I just realized: For the short-term, maybe what they could do is try to time the #238 bus to meet the Palmetto trains at Earlington Heights. Then if you miss the Airport train, instead of waiting 30 minutes for another one, you can wait 15 minutes and transfer. Not the best situation, but it’s better than nothing (I haven’t checked the schedules yet, so I don’t know if they’re doing it).

Miami has the worst subway schedule in the country, and its insulting that they didnt improve it with the expansion.

30 minutes on weekends? Please.

It is quite interesting that your comments are basically related to a poor deal done in Miami, while the referendum related to all of Georgia. Outside the Atlanta region, virtually all projects were road related, as were, as you say, about 50% of those in the Atlanta region. And while 75% of the funds, outside Atlanta, were to go to specific projects, 25% were for unspecified items (85% and 15% in Atlanta). So it is not surprising that the Tea Party opposed such a boondoggle outside Atlanta, and even the 15% of funds to be spent in the Atlanta region on unspecifed projects would make a pretty good ‘slush’ fund. Sheer bad governance, and properly defeated.

The Sierra Club also opposed the proposal, this time on the amount of funds to be spent on road projects. With two major opponents like this, it is not surprising that the referendum was handily defeated.

I suggest that the next referendum – not for another two years – be limited to specific rail projects in the Atlanta region, well thought out, properly detailed and publicized. Will probably win handily.

Interesting point. “Roads and Transit” died in the Seattle area, while “Transit only” passed. So maybe it’s time for someone to try the same thing in Atlanta, as you say.

Except Atlanta’s tax would have been levied post-recession, so surely there revenue projections were more realistic than Miami’s.

And cynically, if there were another hit to revenues in the next 10 years (the sunset clause for T-SPLOST), then there might not even be a congestion problem.

WE jokingly refer to the bus system on Old Cutler and in Coral Gables as “The Maids Express,” offering rich homeowners an escape from having to worry about transporting despicable poor people in the own vehicles. Ergo the problem. Until the public transport system is better and faster than the alternatives with tentacles reaching everywhere, few of the voters who repeatedly turn these projects down will support them.

Does anybody have an idea what percentage using airport links are employee’s versus travelers? That Terminal in Miami is impressive, thanks for the photo link.

A friend of mine was visiting a friend in Atlanta and her neighbor was incredulous that anybody would want to do anything but drive or would want to live in a dense, transit rich area – is this typical for Atlantans?

FG – this 2002 TCRP report addresses these and related issues of airport transit market segmentation:

I note that in Chicago, airport employees comprise a large majority of CTA rail users at both Midway and O’Hare. There are lots of air travelers who take the trains too, of course, and when you use the train as a traveler you will likely see mostly other travelers with you. What you don’t see, however, are the packed trains full of airport workers at shift change times (unless you just happen to be traveling then).

thanks for this cite. I didn’t know about that report.

Not having read it yet, I can’t really comment on it. BUT a big problem with the use of transit and airports has to do with the fact that most US citizens don’t have much experience with transit, and don’t know how to use it.

So someone from DC or NYC or Boston or Chicago, maybe SEPTA (Philadelphia) and SF, when traveling to another place (like Cleveland or Seattle or Montreal or Portland etc.) will choose first to ride transit, because it tends to be cheaper. If the info is hard to figure out they usually have enough knowledge to figure it out.

But most people lack the knowledge, so why when traveling somewhere else would their first inclination be to use transit to get from the airport to their final destination.

And 2, something I mention quite frequently is the issue of luggage.

If people have a lot of it, taking transit is difficult. Even if they don’t have a lot of luggage, transit cars don’t have space that accommodates it (usually–the buses that DC’s WMATA runs to BWI and Dulles have fewer seats but do include luggage racks) of luggage (try riding a bus in the rain from SeaTac airport–it’s probably easier on LR, but I haven’t been there since it opened–it sucks). And if lots of people are trying to fit on the bus with lots of luggage (e.g., Seattle), it’s a big problem.

And 3, relatedly, I always suggest in my writing that because of luggage, escalator systems in airport and train terminal transit stations ought to be oversized to better accommodate luggage.

Compare that to Europe where most cities have transit systems…

Note that BWI airport, which is served by bus from multiple jurisdictions, light rail from Baltimore, and railroad (AMTRAK, MARC) has significantly improved articulation (connection) between the various transit services and the airport/terminals, although I haven’t written about it.

The intra-airport bus service didn’t used to include service to the Amtrak terminal, instead Amtrak did it. Now it’s one integrated system, and the signage within the terminals for transit connections is much better.

And it can be quite difficult to track down the information if you are not a transit user in that town ~ I’ve always tried to use transit from the airport for the annual ASSA convention, and it is often quite difficult to track the information down if you do not know the names of the local systems.

The other problem would be when transit doesn’t go where you need to go, say a suburban hotel for a conference or something like that.

The problem with cabs is they tend to be both very expensive and in short supply outside of bigger cities. AND it’s the return to the station that’s the problem – you have to order a cab to come. A good example would be this anecdotal one from New Haven. A bunch of New Yorkers took Metro North to Yale for a conference and when it was suggested at the end, “oh, do we need to order you guys a cab or two” they were like “nah, we’ll just hail one on the street” and a few said they’d walk – it’s not all that close to the station. Doesn’t work that way there (or most other places, even outer areas of Chicago for example).

Please note; I’m not dissing New Yorkers here, just giving an example of the problem.

Forgot to add; this is why people will chose to drive somewhere rather than take transit, as it takes a lot of coordination. Of course, with improved rail, businesses might congregate around stations, making this a non-issue.

Rental cars aren’t free.
Picking them up and dropping them off are almost of much of a PITA as arranging for a cab when you are departing.

Thanks for the link. I do see a lot of employee’s, more to O’Hare than Midway (which has a busy local bus terminal – that subway under Archer should have been built 50 years ago as proposed – many employee’s probably arrive via bus too).

I love taking BART from/to SFO, it was much easier, and cheaper, for me, than van shuttles to the East Bay. I recently took SEPTA from Philadelphia’s airport to Center City, less impressed, but still convenient.

Miami’s population growth is completely centered around Downtown and its nearby neighborhoods, which bodes well for the Metro. Being such a big financial capital and tourist city, a connection to the airport was always a no-brainer, and I believe it’ll be very successful.

I think Miami-Dade Transit is trying to get better but their screw-ups with the north and west Metro corridors have left a sour taste in the mouths of Miamians. Realistically, the future of rail transit in Miami will have to be in light rail, and they need to look at the areas growing now and areas that have always been historically dense: Little Havana, Edgewater, Upper East Side, Little Haiti, Miracle Mile, etc.

Do you know how well the West Corridor was scored under New Starts? Did it not score high enough in terms of cost-effectiveness (i. e. no federal money), or did it score well but lack viably-sized local matching funds?

I’d think a West Corridor would score better than the north corridor (more destinations and population, strong anchor with FIU), but I recall the alignment being along the highway rather than a more accessible alignment elevated over 7th or Flagler. Perhaps medium-running BRT along Flagler (with a married pair of bus lanes on 1st and Flagler through East Little Havana) would work.

I agree with the BRT solution, as long as it is “real” BRT and not just a limited stop bus. Outside the city center and the Beaches, the density is really more appropriate for BRT or light rail, than Metrorail, and this includes the proposed north and east/west corridors. E/W route would skip over all the dense parts of Little Havana and basically service single family homes with a few mid-rise apartments thrown in. North route is even more desolate with vacant lots and abandoned strip malls along the corridor…no doubt the reason the Feds didn’t prioritize it.

Unfortunately the term “BRT” covers a multitude of varieties. These vary from the brightly painted bus omitting a few stops (very low cost) to the “real” BRT you refer to, operating almost entirely in its own lanes and with traffic light priority (or grade separation) at all intersections, plus prepayment for all boarding passengers. “Real” BRT is usually close to the capital cost of light rail on the same route, and since the vehicles are much smaller, is more expensive to operate. Even the ‘streetcar’ with reasonable separation in congested areas, and with traffic light priority at major intersections will usually do a better job than BRT and at a lower cost.


I’m curious what factors drive the cost of an advanced BRT system to near that of light rail. It strikes me that the cost of centenary and track are what make LRT solutions relatively expensive. Since these don’t exist for BRT, how do the numbers wind up coming out so close?

Most of the cost in any project is in what’s known as “heavy civil construction”. Catenary and tracks cost relatively little. It’s the earthmoving and concrete / asphalt pouring which costs money.

Busways require MORE concrete pouring than rail, so (after rail pays for the track and catenary) busways end up costing the same amount to build as rail. The stations, obviously, require the same amount of concrete pouring.

(If “someone else” pays for the concrete on the roads, *then* busways can look cheaper. But the ONLY sort of busway which is cheaper is one which consists of painting existing roads.)

Finally, if you can fill more than one bus, you find that the busway is more expensive to operate than the railway because you have to run multiple buses rather than single trains.

So we see Ottawa converting its busway to a railway.

@Dudley Horscroft

Except now building a streetcar has now become what “rapid bus” is to LRT (or a European tram)—dumbed-down rail without the separation. Thanks to the modern streetcar boom, I’d now say getting a transit vehicle its own lane is a problem independent of the whole bus-rail debate.

Great post as always. Related to your general point about intensifying the system (1) the polycentric vs. monocentric transit arguments by Steve Belmont (_Cities in Full_) are of course relevant (Belmont’s thesis is on reintensification and focus on the core of a region); (2) similarly, the research out of the UMN Ctr for Transportation Studies that finds the primary benefit from transit in the first 10 miles of the system.

WRT transit connections and urban elites and airports, while I agree with the point about why such connections are prioritized, at the same time, managing a metropolitan area from the standpoint of its place in a national economy, these types of connections do matter, although there is a lot more that needs to be done.

E.g., I argue that DC’s visitor service function is seriously deficient, and that the DC-centric visitors bureau needs to have a presence at all of the region’s airports.

Similarly, while the Dulles extension of the WMATA system is being handled by local authorities in Virginia, I argue that the connection is important and needs to be planned for and funded at the metropolitan level, and shouldn’t be held hostage to micro-local issues in Loudoun County.


Great article. Unfortunately failing on too many promises will discourage American’s to support rail systems in the future. Proper financial planning can be difficult during tough economic times, when things are unpredictable and misfortune is likely. I’m afraid instances like this will bring more rejections like the Florida High Speed Rail, which was set to transport from Tampa to Orlando and on to Miami, before being rejected by the Gov. Rick Scott. Still the construction of just one is better than none. Hopefully Tampa has some new ideas in the near future.

Hopefully, this debacle will serve as a cautionary tale to local authorities that try to promote fantasy rail projects with insufficient sales taxes add-ons.

I think Los Angeles did a reasonable job with its 30/10 project. Realistic expectations and a realistic time-frame. However, this approach of “fast-tracking” current projects with future income has its limitations, agencies can only rack up so much debt against future tax income flows.

The FEC is proposing (planning?) to build a downtown Miami station near or adjacent to the Government Center Metro location for their proposed Miami to Orlando airport corridor service. The FEC owns a plot of land there which could become a pretty lucrative real estate play if the Miami to Orlando FEC corridor service succeeds. See for a local news article on the FEC plans for Miami.

If people can easily walk between the Miami Metro and the FEC corridor trains to Orlando, that should boost ridership on the Metro.

I don’t understand why FL didn’t propose this as their initial “HSR” route instead of the Tampa-Orlando thing. This seems like a much better idea.

Why? Because until very recently the FEC was famous for its hostility to passenger service. I’m not sure exactly when that changed.

On Sales Tax funding of transit:
I have never managed to find an insightful article on the “underperformance” of tax revenues against expectations. The economy is reportedly flat-to-low growth while the tax take seems to be down (say) 35%. Seattle/Pierce Co has the same issue, indeed everywhere in the US that is left to rely on such a fickle financial base. Vancouver re-directs gas taxes, a clearer and in some quarters at least a popular source.

Sales tax revenues has been down for most states and cities from what I have read, not only because of the slow economic recovery, but because of internet sales and changes in what consumers buy. States try to collect sales tax for internet sales, but it is a very hit and miss proposition for them. What happening to the retail industry is complex, but there are many in the retail real estate business who think we are way overbuilt on shopping malls and retail space in the US. People are spending more time on-line and less time shopping in malls. All of which means states and counties that had long term projections for X dollars of sales tax revenues in future years in the pre-2008 crash era, have to adjust those projections downward. Same goes for sales tax set asides for transit.

As to Atlanta, I think we have to take the vote with a grain of salt, because it was in a majority democratic area (well at least less Rep. than much of Ga.) on a Republican primary. Not that the views of either party are better or worse, but the validity of the vote as an accurate measure of what a random sample of metro residents would think re taxation and transit is questionable. That said we have not had the St. Louis like coalitions as described here and by T. Swanstrom.

Actually, not I think there were primaries for both parties. Regardless, the turn out was very low which backs the point about validity re Meto Atlanta in general. Of course, have to ask why cities like Salt Lake are being so much more progressive. I think Atlanta’s problem is the lack of an honest debate and a regional vision.

Salt Lake is an unusual place on two dimensions. First, it is very much aware of “values” because of the Mormon presence. Second, the city is surrounded by mountains. You can’t miss them. And I wonder if this kind of permeates the general consciousness as it relates to environmental-sustainability issues.

Until you’ve been there, you don’t really know. The presence of the mountains is remarkable.

It’s also smaller and far more homogenous (than Atlanta specifically). But I think the mountains and altitude combine to make pollution control more important there, than say, Atlanta.

Go to the promised “enormous expansion” link above in Yonah Freemark’s discussion to the Taken For A Ride website. There were plans at one time for a 89 mile Metro system. It is a discouraging story of mismanagement, political power infighting, cost overruns, treating the system as a jobs program with bloated payrolls and political pandering. There was going to be an westward extension pass the airport, but the federal government refused to provide matching funds after they reviewed the Miami Metro financial records.

In the 2008 Miami Herald story on the website, there were politicians proposing to make the system free for all by raising the sales tax. Who comes up with these ideas? If people do not pay something for a system and there is not at least a decent level of fare box recovery, the passengerw won’t treat the system with any respect and the transit system would be at risk of massive cuts after one economic downturn or election cycle.

What I don’t know if whether the Miami Metrorail system is under better management these days and if the plans to extend the new line pass the airport are still alive.

It looks like they chose a really questionable alignment for that expansion, though, bordered mostly by the expressway, airport, industrial areas and various lakes—between FIU and the airport, pretty much all ridership would have been via bus connections (which I’m guessing aren’t too frequent in western Dade County) or park-and-ride.

If it has been an elevated alignment passing by various activity centers, I’d be disappointed. Since the extension wasn’t planned that way, I’m actually relieved that it’s not happening—the last thing the US needs is more auto-centric, high-cost low-benefit transit.

Well, it certainly should be, even if that’s all the heavy rail that ever gets built in the future because having the Airport and the MIC on this line to me makes an extension a no-brainer. Most, if not all, airport rail links terminate at their respective airports and downtowns are obviously not the only direction where airport passengers come from. It’s such a dirty, rotten shame that all those things that AlanF mentions had to exist because if it weren’t for those things, Miami could be enjoying a possibly more extensive rail network than it has now. I truly hope they can get more rail expansion of some kind there, be it light rail, heavy rail or commuter or regional rail. I would hope that there be at least some heavy rail expansion.

They’re going to start with express busses along the corridor in 2014 using the planned express lanes on the Dolphin Expressway. This is mainly an express service between west Miami Dade and the MIC. For central Miami, an “enhanced bus” is planned for Flagler St., which is parallel to the express route. We’ll have to wait and see how effective the system actually ends up.

So any comments on Florida East Coast railways proposed private rail to Orlando going forward? It will terminate at Orlando International Airport which opens the door to an extension to Tampa via the proposed HSR route, not sure how Jacksonville works in.

Public transportation has become an extremely popular and important part of life for many citizens around the world. Therefore, funds to increase these transport projects should be set aside and not dependent on sales tax funding. Our dependence on different forms of public transportation and the inability of the projects to pull through makes it harder for us to support anything that comes up in the future.

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