A lot happened this week behind the scenes and between the lines. Here is a review:

Kudos to this editorial today from El Nuevo Herald columnist Daniel Shoer Roth. I think he did an excellent job in highlighting how mismanaged our transit system is. Accountability goes out the window when ten different departments and municipalities are ‘responsible’ for certain aspects of mass transit. I’m always talking about how our system is ‘mismanaged’ but that really isn’t the case at all. It’s a question of priorities, and transit has not historically been one of them.

Our planning priorities were on full display this past weekend in an insert produced by the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) that the Herald included in its Sunday edition. The insert describes work done to date and future projects. If you are not familiar with the MPO, it is a County run organization that is charged with coordinating the various transportation projects around Miami-Dade, as required by Federal Department of Transportation rules. Their mandate is described on their website is:

…to have a continuing, cooperative and comprehensive transportation planning process that results in plans and programs that consider all transportation modes and support metropolitan community development and social goals. These plans and programs shall lead to the development and operation of an integrated, intermodal transportation system that facilitates the efficient, economic movement of people and goods.” (emphasis added)

Many worthy goals, but unfortunately their focus is more on expressway and road building projects than on balancing roads with mass transit. My favorite part of the insert is titled “Miami-Dade: Urban Travel Trends” which utilizes graphs, bright colors, and a lot of traffic engineer lingo (vehicle miles traveled, peak period speeds, etc), with only a brief mention of transit under a graph called ‘Transit Mode Share’. The text accompanying the graph states, “the countywide transit mode share in 2005 was approximately 2.5%” It goes on to say that share will grow, “albeit modestly.” Ok. I find it disillusioning that the organization supposedly responsible for coordinating our transit system is not very optimistic about the future growth of MDT.

Truth be told, after this week’s political farce concerning tranist fares and another half cent tax, I might tend to agree with the MPO. Our future transit does not look so good because the people responsible are alseep at the wheel. Commisioners Bruno and Barbs: wake up!! You have have been reaching in the dark these past few weeks trying to placate your constituents. I know this issue gets heated and personal. Let me be clear: this is not a personal attack. It makes it difficult for those of us who are transit advocates and who supported the first tax increase to justify anything you ask for now because of how the money has been squandered. Surely you can understand that. Next week I am going to work on a series of posts on how the People’s Transportation Tax has been spent to bring to light how that opportunity has been, and continues to be, botched.
If you really care about transit, and Commissioner Jordan I think you care about getting the Orange Line built, here are a few recommendations that can serve as confidence building measures that might make any fare or tax increase palatable:

  • Make the Citizens Independent Transportation Trust the sole entity responsible for deciding what happens to that money. Give it back its teeth, and allow it to do its job.
  • Charge veterans and the elderly. We can’t give away transit that doesn’t exist yet. Until MDT gets its house in order, they should be charged, albeit at a reduced rate that should be revisited when MDT’s finances get better. MDT needs income, and the Trust shouldn’t be responsible for giving it an allowance every month.
  • Charge for the Metromover. Same reasons as above.
  • Have MDT work with the Trust. Recent reports from Miami Today describe how the Trust is having a tough time getting cooperation from MDT with regard to budget issues. How is the Trust supposed to operate if it doesn’t know how much the system costs to maintain?? This is silly.

Note to Mayor Carlos Alvarez: the strong mayor powers you wanted came with responsibilities, ie. get MDT organized. How can they run the business of Miami-Dade Transit without a budget. Helloo?? Not to put all the blame on you though, as you’ve only really been in charge for a short while.

  • Tie the 20% Municipal Transportation Plan funding to transit specifically, not transportation which has become synonymous with roads and expressways. A majority of payments to municipalities have been spent on roads, resurfacing, and other road related infrastructure. The PTP was marketed primarily as a transit plan. Spend money on rail, buses, and the infrastructure related to these much needed systems. Our roads are in fine shape. That way projects like the Coral Gables Trolley continue to get funding, while other money is free to be spent on, oh, I don’t know, maybe a few bus shelters (around International Mall maybe)?
  • Increase fares to be consistent with our how efficient our system is. Don’t over do it. We want to pay for our transit, but we want to get something in return.

You need to rebuild our confidence in your ability to provide us with a functional and growing transit system. Very soon public perception of transit in this community is going to turn from being a nonessential ‘social good’ to an indispensable and basic part of the infrastructure of the city. When that happens, when people start to feel like they have no choice but to get in their cars at $8.00 a gallon, watch out Commissioners and company. The mob will be ruthless, and the storming of the Bastille will seem like a trip to Disneyworld in comparison to your worth in the public eye.

16 Responses to The week in transit

  1. Dave says:

    You left out the most important point for the Commission and the Mayor: Adequately fund MDT. Right now MDT gets less than 40% of its budget from the County, the other 60% is fares, half-cent sales tax proceeds, and state assistance. That 40-60 ratio should be flipped (or at least pump up the County’s contribution to a 50-50 level).

    As an aside that is waay off topic, MDT currently spends almost 80% of its budget on personnel costs with the lion share of that coming from health insurance and pension commitments to its employees with health costs rising astronomically each year. This is where most of your tax dollars really go these days. Just thought I would point that out to people who always complain that socialized medicine would raise taxes. None of the 3 presidential candidates are offering anything groundbreaking when it comes to healthcare reform so look for health care costs to continue to eat up governmental department budgets (like MDT’s) even more in coming years.

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  2. Tony Garcia says:

    Thanks Dave. I should have pointed out that I have not been able to get my hands on MDT’s budget for the last couple of years, so it’s hard for me to make that kind of a recommendation. The ultimate goal is to have the money from the sales tax go to new transit projects, not toward operations and maintenance or roads.

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  3. Dave says:

    Here is a slightly dated budget from 2006. I can’t imagine the funding has changed much since then. Revenues and expenditures can be found on page 15:

    http://www.miamidade.gov/transit/library/Business_Plan.pdf

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  4. Tony Garcia says:

    I saw this budget a while back and kept going back to the MDT web page and its never been updated. Any calls to MDT go unreturned. To run a department of that size they need to have an idea of how much they make and how much it costs. The fact that this information hasn’t been updated is highly suspect to me.

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  5. Warmonger says:

    You need to do a public records request under state law. There may be a cost to it, but offer to inspect the information in lieu of having it copied first. There are attorneys’ fees and other financial disincentives to the agency for playing around with the request. Our public records law is not that bad, and it should be used aggressively when the polite approach gets you nowhere.

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  6. Warmonger says:

    For what it’s worth, the law is Chapter 119 of the Florida Statutes. It’s accessible through the Florida Legislature website. Note that final audits are public records; that would be interesting to see, if there were any such audits done of MDT and if so what they revealed.

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  7. TransitDave says:

    I know from first hand experience that there’s a lot of dead weight at MDTA, MPO and every agency that oversees transit in Miami Dade….That’s a big part of the problem, as the post states…..
    I have to disagree about strengthening the CITT, though…..I say,
    abolish the CITT, assign it’s responsibility for overseeing the transit portion of the CITT tax to the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority, they hire the same consultants and lobbyists, anyway….The Citt board and it’s staff is another duplication of effort which would be unnecessary were the scope it’s responsibilities limited only to Transit projects…..

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  8. Wang says:

    I have to take exception with your forgiving the management of transit in Miami. I am copying a comment from a forum post on protransit.org to illustrate. This post was in response to the announced “25 cent” fare hike in 2005. You know, in financial textbooks, transit pricing is often used to illustrate the concepts of monopoly pricing. Whether as a local transit rider, a sales tax paying tourist, or anyone that travels more than a few blocks in a week, it is practically criminal that our elected officials and transit agency officials are allowed to continue voting illogically. The fact is that the transit agency after 2005 is losing revenue and riders because of its pricing structure. Read on:

    A fare hike? Maybe, but a total restructuring of the pricing schedule? Definitely not. Look, a 25 cent hike in the fare represents a 20% increase from $1.25 to $1.50. However, the price of a token jumped 43% from $1.00 to $1.43. The price of a transfer jumped 100% from 25 cents to 50 cents. Both of these increases hit the everyday transit commuters hard. A transit token is no longer an incentive program in this new pricing schedule. It had been that a token represented a discount of 20% off the regular fare, but now that discount is a mere 3%. In an unscientific 2 hours of internet research, the least percentage discount I could find for tokens or similar transit passes was 10% and in that case transfers were 25 cents not 50 cents like they are now in Miami (that city was Chicago). But like I said, that was the worst discount I could find. Atlanta and NY don’t charge for transfers and offer 15% and 20% discounts on tokens or token equivelants respectively. Philly offer tokens at a 35% discount, although their transfers are also the most expensive at 60 cents.

    The point here is that balance of transit ridership cannot possibly improve without some sort of incentive discount for daily riders. The new fares were evidently instituted to balance the budget, but this cannot possibly work by reducing (nearly eliminating) the incentive to daily riders. These people, myself included, will be looking to get off the bus as soon as possible. Afterall, the price of a roundtrip with transfer just increased from $2.50 to $3.86 an increase of 55%!

    Besides, aren’t there 2 ways to balance the budget? Increase fares or increase riders? I think so.

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  9. Tony Garcia says:

    Wang, I hardly think I was ‘forgiving management of transit in Miami’. The post was pretty clear in criticizing how transit is managed.
    If you read through the financial documents MDT has on their website, and linked-to above by Dave, as of 2006 MDT was not losing revenue or ridership. The real problem is that it doesn’t make enough money to offset increases in personnel costs, as Dave pointed out above, and rising fuel and maintenance costs (which both take a big bite out of their budget).

    As to fares and the ‘incentive to ride’: I don’t know what cost/benefit anaylsis you use as far as transit is concerned but transit is still a bargin compared to filling up my tank every few days at $40 a tank.

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  10. Wang says:

    Tony, I was reacting to your comment at the end of the second paragraph: “I’m always talking about how our system is ‘mismanaged’ but that really isn’t the case at all.”. I was surprised to read it.

    There is more than one real problem. I’m not well enough informed to gauge Dave’s points, but they certainly seem reasonable. I wanted to highlight a different problem that concerns not just the absolute price of transit, but the pricing structure that is employed.

    In 2005, transit wanted to raise fares. Instead of raising fares by a set percentage like say 20%, they set a different percentage increase for each of their types of fares:

    2005 percentage
    full fare: $1.25 $1.50 20%
    transfer: $0.25 $0.50 100%
    token: $1.00 $1.43 43%

    This change reduced the discount for tokens to 3% from its previous 20% discount, substantially eliminating a very important opportunity for transit to maximize revenue without increasing expenses. See the explanation on wikipedia for an idea:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Price_discrimination#Explanation

    The costs of operating a bus on a route don’t vary much with the number of people riding the bus. Transit still has to pay the operator and fuel whether 20 people ride the bus or 80. Not everyone is willing to pay the same amount for a ride on a bus. In order to maximize revenue, transit would want to set prices so that each rider were charged the maximum amount that they were willing to pay. This is one of the primary reasons why tokens and passes are even offered for sale. The way they are priced now, there is very little benefit to buying a token or pass to the riders.

    The pricing structure of transit in Miami is completely out of step with theory, and probably every other transit agency in the world. Do we need new trains? Yep. Do we need bike lanes? Yessir. Should we be plan our development to encourage transit use? No doubt. Those things matter tremendously, but while we are all arguing about how to fund transit, we may as well restore the revenue that is being lost because of inefficient transit fares by the filling the buses we already operate.

    Thanks for your great website!

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  11. Li'l Pony says:

    I agree with Wang wholeheartedly. I was shocked when they restructured the pricing in 2005, virtually eliminating the incentive to buy a token. Thanks to Wang for doing all the comparative research and showing so clearly how cruel and illogical that hike was.

    I would like to add that it is almost impossible to get anywhere on the MDTA without at least one transfer. So the 2005 hikes meant that in reality you paid 50 cents more for the base round-trip fare, and 50 cents more for the round-trip transfers. That means that you paid $1 extra every day for your commute.

    The cost of transfers is one reason why I would oppose charging for the MetroMover. It may make sense in an abstract argument to charge for it, but for people who use it everyday, it would be an extra burden and even disincentive. As it stands now, I have to pay for one transfer and get the MetroMover transfer free. If I had to pay for two transfers, I would be paying $2.50 each way — more than the base fare on NYC’s MTA but for much slower and less reliable service

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  12. Tony Garcia says:

    Lil’ Pony, I agree with you and Wang that there is a problem with the way fares are set. No question. Unfortunately, that is one symptom of the health of our transit system, which suffers from low revenue. Charging for MetroMover is one way of generating revenue where it is needed. People who use the MetroMover regularly should be allowed to pay a discounted one time monthly fee, but they should be prepared to pay for their transit.

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  13. MJ says:

    They also need to revamp the STS paratransit program. that thing costs a fortune and we are basically subsidizing cab fares for the elderly. The program is fraught with corruption and graft, i see little old ladies taking sts to go play cards at the country club. STS should be limited to doctors visits only with perhaps a one or two “leisure trip” vouchers thhrown in…I think it costs county taxpayers approx 25 dollars to subsidize every sts trip..unacceptable.

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  14. Visitor says:

    Wow,

    The brilliance of your post rings true as just today (June 9) I heard on the radio that the half-percent sales tax increase in 2002 did quite a bit. Yeah, the main thing it did was pay off $700 million in EXISTING debt. Great.

    Everyone else here is far, far better informed than I, but I do have a story about mass-transit in Miami…

    I was once asked to take part in a sit-down survey of Miami mass-transit users back in 1990. I was still in high school. Everyone there seemed quite happy with the bus system, then running about one bus per hour on streets like Kendall after 9am. That was my main complaint. One bus per hour at after 9am seemed stupid to me. They all laughed, ignored me, and moved on to patting themselves on the back.

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  15. [...] 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 [...]

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  16. [...] here and here for more commentary on what should be done with MDT and our transit system. That should give [...]

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