Unfortunately, there is no good news coming out of County Hall with the release of a long overdue assessment of the status of both the North and East/West Alignments of the Metro-rail Orange line. The projects, called for in the People’s Transportation Plan, have been on hold for several years because of the lack of long term financial commitment on the part of the administration and County Commission. This lack of long term funding has led the Federal Transportation Agency to consistently give a medium-low rating to Miami-Dade Transit’s New Start application for federal Transit assistance. As a result, MDT plans to finally withdraw its application for federal New Starts funding in order to prevent being penalized in the next application. This should be no surprise to anyone, and considering the lack of ridership projected for these routes, is a blessing in disguise.
Report author and transit guru Ysela Llort lays down the law in pretty clear terms:
My July 17, 2008 report to you on MDT’s Financial Status and subsequent August 28, 2008 report on 30-year financial scenarios for the department clearly laid out policy options for the Board both in the short and long-term that would be needed to arrive at the 9.4 billion in needs beyond existing revenues in order to build, operate and maintain the Metro-rail Orange line, including both the NW 27th avenue corridor and East/West corridors. Among the options to be considered were fare increases, additional General Fund Support (beyond the maintenance of effort level), unification of the transit system, a two cent increase to the local Option Gas Tax, adjustments to the current municipal contributions, and adjustments to fare-free programs.
Llort is a straight talker, and maintains that there can be no premium transit expansion without a greater local financial commitment. As it is, she writes,
If at any time we wish to pursue federal funding for any transit New Starts or Small starts project, the FTA will demand that MDT demonstrate that it can operate and maintain both the existing system and the expanded system.
Read: We will not get premium transit expansion until the BoCC commits to funding the expanded system. Any system improvements we pursue without federal help are just patches that will not ultimately lead to any substantive increase in ridership.
Mayor Alvarez has tenuously supported the Orange Line, but has not gone to bat for the expansion, instead choosing to pursue a strategy of “Affordable, Incremental Transit Improvements” (in light of the fact that the Board will not make the bold move of further strengthening MDT’s financials) I have been a proponent in the past for this incremental pace of improvement, but disagree on what this administration deems to be the correct increment of expansion and level of affordability. Not to mention the many changes (some cited by Llort above and others in my May 2008 post on the subject) that could have been undertaken by now to help MDT’s financial situation, but that still remain unchanged.
While there have been notable and important advances made by MDT in the last few years (the EASY cards, MIC/ Earlington Heights, system restructuring), the current pace of improvements is simply unacceptable. The Board was presented with a report earlier this year that showed revenue, service and ridership for the different alternatives of premium transit for the Orange Line (heavy rail, light rail (LRT), bus rapid transit (BRT), and BRT-lite). In each instance a funding gap exists without an increased financial commitment by the BoCC (regardless of the type of technology). Striking the balance between increasing ridership and spending prudently is the name of the game, so the current plans, described by Llort in the report, call for a BRT-lite along both the NW 27th Ave line and the East/West Dolphin Expressway alignment. In my view, this will attract the least amount of potential riders, and will not contribute to critical system wide expansion, but is an alternative to spending money on routes that are not yet ready for higher levels of service.
Our leaders need to change how they think about planning transit expansion in a way that takes into account total system connectivity - not just how to accommodate random corridors around the County. Maybe now that the albatross of the Orange Line is being cast aside, our leaders can focus on expanding Metro-rail to places that will increase ridership (like Miami Beach), and that will lead to greater network connectivity (like the Douglas Road corridor).
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