Miami-Dade OKs another plan to extend Metrorail north. Next up: Find the money

Miami-Dade has been planning to build a rail line north toward Broward County for decades, and on Thursday a county transportation board voted to approve the concept of a 13-mile elevated route along Northwest 27th Avenue and to figure out how much it costs at a later date.

“I’m here once again to talk about the north corridor,” former Miami-Dade commissioner Betty Ferguson, who served in the 1990s, told board members as the afternoon’s first speaker in favor of rail. “You know the community has been waiting … The people really need this kind of rapid transport.”

The 25-member Transportation Planning Organization voted to stick with elevated rail as the preferred transit mode for the northern corridor, months after approving rapid-transit bus for the southern corridor connecting the Metrorail system with Florida City.

Both votes were part of the 2016 SMART Plan, a process that launched transit studies for six of the county’s busiest commuting corridors. Each corridor’s study is designed to conclude with the transportation board, a panel of elected officials that includes the entire county commission, endorsing a “preferred” transit mode for the route that can then be eligible for federal funds.

The vote to make elevated rail the preferred mode for the north corridor leaves Miami-Dade where it has been for decades: pursuing a train system along 27th Avenue. There isn’t an estimated cost for the effort. The language approved by board members was designed not to endorse the findings of a state consultant recommending a $1.8 billion expansion of Metrorail to the north.

Those consultants from WSP USA, a firm that has been studying the north corridor for two years as part of the SMART Plan, attended the meeting but were not asked to present their recommendations. Instead, the board endorsed a generic elevated rail system in hopes that some of the more modern systems companies are eager to sell Miami-Dade will end up carving hundreds of millions of dollars off of the Metrorail price tag.

“Now we have to do the studies, and see which modes are feasible,” Mayor Carlos Gimenez said after the vote.

Advocates of approving rail point to 27th Avenue as the most egregious of Miami-Dade’s broken transit promises, since the area was slated for a Metrorail expansion shortly after the system launched in the 1980s. When the county persuaded voters in 2002 to approve a half-percent sales tax for transportation projects, a Metrorail extension for 27th Avenue was named as a top priority for the new dollars.

With the proposed route running through some of Miami-Dade’s largely African-American communities, the failed expansion plans were cast as a broader example of the racial gaps in prosperity and government attention. Thursday’s vote was celebrated as an attempt to do the right thing.

“It appears black Miami will finally get justice after 40 years,” said Kenneth Kilpatrick, president of the Brownsville Civic Organization.

The need for additional studies and financial projections for a northern rail route captures the difference between the SMART Plan vote for the north and for the south.

In August, the transportation board approved a $243 million plan for rapid-transit buses using the existing busway in South Dade, with plans for iconic new depots serving express vehicles with group boarding and advanced ticket sales. After winning board approval, Miami-Dade promptly filed an application for up to $100 million from Washington for the system.

After the vote on the north corridor’s preferred transit mode Thursday, the board instructed staff to create a financial plan for a new rail system and zero in on the appropriate vehicles for the expansion. That would need to be approved by the board again. Then, if Miami-Dade had a viable plan to pay for the system, it could be submitted to Washington for aid.

“I hope we can bring this home for all the residents,” said Miami Gardens Mayor Oliver Gilbert, a board member whose city sits along the proposed route. “Not just in North Dade, but for the entire county.”

The vote occurred the same day Miami-Dade celebrated the award of a much more modest federal transit grant than what the county would need to expand rail. The Trump administration announced a $10 million federal grant to help expand park-and-ride options along the South Dade busway, money that Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, said was an example of his ability to help secure dollars for Miami-Dade when asked. “It shows if you get your act together, I’m here to help,” he said Thursday.

The Republican has criticized county leaders for not submitting bold transit plans to Washington while he served as chairman of a Congressional subcommittee overseeing federal transportation dollars — a post he is now losing with the Democratic takeover of the House.

Miami-Dade went through the federal process for 27th Avenue rail after the 2002 referendum, and Washington approved a rail plan but did not offer significant aid. With the arrival of the Great Recession, Miami-Dade shelved the idea, the latest setback in an extended effort to expand Metrorail to the north. The first county study for rail along the route was finished in 1995, according to the WSP USA report.

Thursday’s vote puts Miami-Dade on record again for supporting rail along Northwest 27th Avenue. The route recommended by WSP USA would connect the existing northern end point at Northside Station on 79th Street to a new route stretching to Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens and then ending near the Broward line. But the vote came without any estimate of the costs required to extend rail.

The overall plan is popular, since it would give residents and commuters along the route a ride into downtown Miami, with county trains rolling a couple stories above traffic on the thoroughfare. But the finances are daunting. The Gimenez administration last year recommended a $534 million rapid-bus plan for the north and south corridors to serve as a more affordable waypoint for transit until Miami-Dade had the money to afford more rail in both directions.

Gimenez has dropped that plan for the north, endorsing elevated rail for 27th Avenue in his comments before the board. The reversal drew a rebuke from Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava, a South Dade representative who noted the consultant who recommended against more rail for her region reported to the Gimenez administration while WSP USA was hired by Florida.

She said South Dade deserved an “unbiased” transit study, where consultants were “free from regular direction from county staff.”

“We did get a raw deal in South Dade,” she said. “It’s clear a double-standard was applied.”

Levine Cava joined in the yes vote for elevated rail along the north corridor. No timeline was given for the board’s staff to produce a financial plan for the system, or when experts would offer recommendations on a financially feasible train technology.

Barbara Jordan, the county commissioner who sponsored the rail plan and represents much of the corridor, said she did not want to let the high costs tied to Metrorail once again scuttle Miami-Dade’s efforts to give commuters in the north a transit option beyond a bus.

“The community has been disappointed on a number of occasions,” she said. “We don’t want to be disappointed again by coming back with one mode and saying, ‘Well, it’s too costly.’ ”