PTP Transit Projects Lag Behind

Javier A. Betancourt, Executive Director
Citizens’ Independent Transportation Trust (CITT)

In my previous columns, I provided an overview of the successful municipal and roadway components of the People’s Transportation Plan, or PTP, the list of transportation projects approved by Miami-Dade County voters in 2002 as part of the “half-penny” sales surtax.  In this third and final part of the series, I focus on the proposed transit components of the PTP that were included in the original ballot language approved by voters.  As a reminder, here is that language as it appeared on the ballot: 

“Shall the County implement the People’s Transportation Plan including: Plans to build rapid transit lines to West Dade, Kendall, Florida City, Miami Beach and North Dade; expanding bus service; adding 635 buses; improving traffic signalization to reduce traffic backups; improving major and neighborhood roads and highways, including drainage; and funding to municipalities for road and transportation projects by levying a half percent sale surtax whose proceeds will be overseen by the Citizens’ Independent Transportation Trust?”

The unfortunate truth, after 17 years, is that several of the transit components promised to the voters have yet to be delivered, but it would be unfair to say that nothing has been accomplished or that surtax proceeds were largely spent elsewhere.  Indeed, around two-thirds of surtax proceeds — nearly $2 Billion of the $3 Billion collected since 2002 — have in fact been spent on transit (not including the millions spent on municipal transit systems).  These expenditures include the expansion of Metrorail to Miami International Airport along the new Orange Line; purchase of new Metrobus, Metromover and Metrorail vehicles; some new bus service; development of several park-and-ride stations and associated Express Bus service throughout the County; critical infrastructure upgrades; fare-free transit for all seniors (Golden Passport), lower-income veterans (Patriot Passport), and Metromover patrons; and most controversially, subsidies for the operations and maintenance (O&M) of the existing transit system. 

Surtax proceeds are also funding the expansion of Tri-Rail into MiamiCentral Station in Downtown Miami (currently in progress), the recently approved Aventura Station for Brightline/Virgin Trains and future commuter rail service along that line; and Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) service along the South Dade Corridor.  That final project is one of the six corridors of the Strategic Miami Area Rapid Transit (SMART) Plan, a renewed effort to fulfill the promised rapid transit corridors from the original PTP, all of which are in some phase of early development.

But while we should celebrate our achievements, we must also acknowledge our shortcomings.  The promised expansion of rapid transit to every corner of the County remains largely unfulfilled, although advancement of the SMART Plan aims to address that; and the promised expansion of bus service by 63% remains largely unmet, with only a 5% growth in bus service since 2002. 

So what happened?  My best understanding of the situation we find ourselves in is as follows:

A half-cent was seemingly never enough to complete the original list of projects within the promised timeframes due to the various compromises that were necessary to ensure its passage (such as cutting the one-cent down to a half-cent, the diversion of 20% of proceeds to municipalities, fare-free programs, etc.), and due to some overly optimistic assumptions of costs and levels of federal/state financial contributions;

It became clear during the federal application process for the North Corridor that we would never receive federal financial assistance without first addressing the many deteriorating infrastructure and operational needs of the existing system.  In lieu of adequately funding these necessary improvements through the general fund, the County has instead used surtax funds to invest in upgrades to the existing infrastructure in order to serve as a foundation for the new projects;

The fiscal and economic crisis created by the great recession, followed by the sharp decline in ridership these last few years, have further strained the County’s resources and required an infusion of additional PTP funds to continue to shore up the existing system, including subsidies for O&M; and 

There is an understandable reluctance by officials and the public to raise additional revenues, including property taxes or another half-penny sales tax, to fund transit at the levels necessary to cover the true costs of critical infrastructure upgrades and O&M of the existing system, while also expanding the system in accordance with the promises of the PTP.

In the end, the PTP record is mixed…many of the promises have been achieved; many remain unfulfilled; and many are in some state of progress.  What is clear is that transportation remains one of this County’s greatest challenges, and the PTP and half-penny surtax will remain critical to addressing this challenge well into the future.  At the Citizens’ Independent Transportation Trust, we remain committed to providing the critical oversight necessary for ensuring that these challenges are met and that the promises made to voters are ultimately fulfilled.

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  1. Rapid Transit is not rapid. The people of Dade County were lied to by the politicians and transit personnel going back to 1972, with the Decade of Progress transit bond issue. But this is common. It is worse in California, a Socialist state. The Metro Commission and a handful of developers, backed by the Greater of Miami Chamber of Commerce, were determined to have an elevated train to make a buck by building near transit stations. The result is ever increasing, continuing deficits, which the half percent sales tax increase subsidizes. The public no longer trusts the Metro politicians or local government generally. Thus, there is no support for more taxes to expand Metrofail and to make the bus, the workhorse of mass transit, first class.

  2. Promises were made, but never kept. The county continues to balk at the idea of expanding MetroRail to the west and east. To the west, FIU would have been a logical hub and at some point on Kendall Drive. Easing the traffic congestion and making travel to FIU much easier for students. To the east, Miami Beach would have been ideal, encouraging people to go to the beach, but not drive or have to deal with non-existent parking or prohibitively expensive if available. Yes, it is expensive, but think how much money has been pumped into Band-Aid projects that don’t really get the job done. Please, bite the bullet and expand MetroRail! I am a daily commuter on the rail and love it. But if I lived or worked somewhere else, the rail would not have been an option. Do the right thing!

  3. The entire transit decision-making process and system were critically flawed from the beginning and remain so today. The 2002 wish list was far too ambitious for the funding anticipated. Too many people with no understanding of transit principles were involved in decision making and continue to be. Minimum densities of riders are required to make systems efficient enough to operate. These densities simply don’t exist south of Dadeland or to the west making expansion there unfeasible. The main areas of high density along the northeast were not captured when the lines were first built. Instead the line was constructed to the NW which has never had and will likely never have the density required for a system to be successful. There are junkyards and gas stations and even vacant lots surrounding many existing stations. Even the airport does not have enough passengers to support the cost of having a station there; the ridership at that station has been abysmal since it opened. Two things should be done to drastically improve Metrorail ridership and operational efficiency. First the County and municipalities should aggressively increase the density around every existing station by requiring high minimum densities for any adjacent development and by giving developers whatever incentives are required to achieve these densities. Only when the current system becomes more successful and efficient will there be the will and money to expand it. Once ridership starts to increase the system should be expanded to the NE to capture existing densities there. The Washington Metro opened around the same time as Metrorail and had many stations in low density areas in Virginia. Over time every one of the station areas became a mini-city and the system is much more successful as a result. This is the approach required if Metrorail is ever to become a successful system.


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