On the hunt for a cheaper alternative to Metrorail, Miami-Dade’s mayor heads to China

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Eight months after he shook up Miami-Dade’s transit debate by proposing a high-tech “virtual train” bus as an alternative to expanding Metrorail, Mayor Carlos Gimenez is leading a delegation to visit the Chinese company that hopes to start selling the vehicles.

The CRRC Corporation’s train factory in Zhuzhou is the highlight of the first full-day in China for the traveling group of 50-plus elected officials, county administrators, lobbyists, developers and Miami-Dade contractors touring China and Japan on a 14-day trip that begins Tuesday.

gimenez july 11 county hall

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez is leading a delegation to China and Japan for a two-week trip starting March 13, 2018.

dhanks@miamiherald.com BY DOUGLAS HANKS

Gimenez first floated the idea of using vehicles from the government-owned Chinese company during the summer of 2017 when he proposed a $534 million plan to create rapid-transit bus systems to connect Metrorail with commuters in Miami’s northern and southern suburbs. He pitched the idea as far more realistic than expanding Metrorail along the same routes, a project his administration said would cost at least $1.5 billion to build.

 

Along with cost, Gimenez pointed to a coming revolution from autonomous vehicles in arguing against saddling Miami-Dade with rail debt that would take at least a generation to pay back as trains become obsolete. He pointed to the CRRC plan for a “virtual train” — it’s a rubber-wheeled vehicle (like a bus) that would be able to use autonomous steering to follow painted lines on regular highways alongside automobile traffic.

The Chinese company unveiled the vehicle in June 2017, and it is reportedly being tested in Zhuzhou. Accompanying Gimenez on the trip will be some of the commissioners who have been most adamant that Miami-Dade stick with its plans to expand Metrorail, including Barbara Jordan, whose district includes the proposed northern route along Northwest 27th Avenue.

Joining Jordan from the 13-member commissioner are Audrey Edmonson, Jose “Pepe” Diaz, and Jean Monestime, according to a list released Friday by the mayor’s office. Gimenez appointees joining the mayor are Ed Marquez, the deputy mayor for finance; Aviation Director Lester Sola; Water and Sewer Director Kevin Lynskey; Port Director Juan Kuryla; and Transportation Director Alice Bravo.

The mayor’s office did not have a budget for the trip, and the delegation list does not include mention of county police officers assigned to the sergeant-at-arms staff who in the past have traveled with the mayor and commissioners overseas. It also does not list any spouses.

The trip is funded by a mix of county and private dollars, including money from tax-funded organizations. Alex Ferro, Gimenez’s chief of staff, said the mayor and commissioners’ travel are funded by a county-controlled charity, the Trade Mission Center of the Americas. Housed in a county office building, the non-profit’s most recent public tax returns lists Edmonson, Diaz and a senior county administrator as its only board members.

Sponsors of the China and Japan trip wrote checks to the Trade Center. Top sponsors, at the $7,500 “platinum” level, include MIA and PortMiami, which rely on landing and docking fees for their budgets; and the Water and Sewer Department, which is funded by fees paid by customers. Another platinum sponsor is Mana Wynwood, a company owned by developer Moishe Mana, who is building an Asian trade center in Wynwood.

The county’s Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau, a tourism agency funded by hotel and restaurant taxes, is a gold sponsor at $5,000, along with AECOM, an engineering firm with extensive county contracts. AECOM has offices in China and Japan. LSN Partners, a lobbying firm that is home to Gimenez’s 2016 campaign manager, Jesse Manzano-Plaza, is a silver sponsor at $3,500.

Because of prohibitions on gifts, Ferro said the Trade Center segregates the cash from county vendors and lobbyists so that they aren’t funding hotel stays and airfare for the mayor and commissioners. He did not have a breakdown of where the money was going.

Private-sector participants pay up to $1,200 to join the trip, and must pay for their own travel arrangements. Department heads and other county officials fund their trips through agency budgets, Ferro said.

The trip was open to anyone who wanted to pay the registration. It gives lobbyists and vendors up to two weeks with the elected officials and senior administrators who play key roles in deciding which companies are awarded Miami-Dade contracts. On the delegation list are executives behind large county contractors, including engineering firm Nova Consulting; bus provider Safeguard America; G-T Construction, a consulting firm run by former Gimenez finance chairman Ralph Garcia-Toledo, and WSP, the engineering firm once known as Parsons Brinckerhoff.

Lobbyists include Jose Bermudez, Alex Heckler, Michael Llorente, and Al Maloof. Also on the trip: Mark Rosenberg, president of Florida International University, which has a campus in China.

Along with the CRRC visit, the itinerary includes stops in Hong Kong to meet with Cathay Pacific airline; the China Film Group, the government-owned company that controls much of the country’s movie industry; touring Chinese railways; a Shanghai water treatment plan; and riding a high-speed train in Japan.


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