Fresh ideas can reverse Miami’s transit race to oblivion



Written by Michael Lewis on March 13, 2018

Fresh ideas can reverse Miami’s transit race to oblivion

New York, which is battling subway woes that make Miami’s faltering transit feel like a swiftly flowing stream, unveiled eight solutions in a global competition last week.

New York was desperate. Its subways carrying 5 million riders a day are crumbling. So eight answers plucked from 438 offerings from 23 nations will be a $3 million bargain if even one winner is a partial quick solution – “quick” in Manhattan parlance being five to 25 years.

Government has to be desperate to seriously ask the public for ideas, many of which won’t fit the situation or the wallet. But honestly, isn’t Miami-Dade also desperate enough to start listening?

A FasTrack competition partly funded by the county recently found we need more mass transit and carpool riders in order to clear our highways. It’s not rocket science.

But if part of the congestion solution is to beef up transit use, we’re going the wrong way. As we pointed out last week, we’ve lost more than 25% of transit riders in a single month over four years, pouring them onto already-congested roads.

At the same time, faced with lower fare revenues from fewer riders, we’re cutting service to stay within budget. With less service, fewer and fewer people ride, forcing more and more service cuts. That’s a death spiral.

It’s so bad that commissioners last week ordered Mayor Carlos Giménez to report in advance any planned transit service changes. The measure’s main sponsor, Daniella Levine Cava, noted separately that “more than five months ago the [commission] voted to restore Metrorail services, yet that has been delayed and the administration is cutting service on dozens of bus routes without prior notification… We should be doing everything we can to increase transit options and improve riders’ experience.”

She’s absolutely correct. So what can be done?

The administration last week went looking for $3.5 million in repairs to get air-conditioning going on 40 Metrorail cars. Air-conditioning doesn’t move riders, but try riding Miami trains that don’t have it – the heat can force you back onto the highway.

That’s a small fix. There are many pieces. No single action can bring back millions of transit rides a month that have fled Miami-Dade’s system in the past four years or retain those that remain.

A major question has been whether to put all of our financial eggs into six new transit legs that government has been planning or to spend now to better serve riders we already have. The answer is we must do both simultaneously. That means a serious, and rapid, shuffling of county fiscal priorities to put transit in the driver’s seat. It’s an emergency.

Transportation is pivotal. It sways income and job opportunities, housing needs, and planning and growth issues. If transportation goes to hell it takes a whole lot with it, from tourism to real estate to quality of life.

As transportation crumbles, fissures are appearing in government between the administration and the commission in a useless blame game that came out in the open last week when commissioners realized that Smart plan transit gains had to be put off another year for more studies, with more studies still ahead. Well, no one person is to blame, but there’s plenty of blame to share.

What seemed to be a smooth unity road to a glittering Smart plan for added transit is becoming bumpier as it becomes apparent that neither the mayor nor commissioners are likely to be in office by the time new lines roll. Term limits will bring aboard a whole new cast to face the same old gaps.

But what the current cast can do, right now, is find multiple ways to reverse the outflow of riders from our present transit.

Air conditioning is one step. Getting new buses and rail cars rolling sooner is another – they’re ordered and funded, but nobody can ride them until they’re ready. What can be done creatively to get providers to move faster? Would a bonus for speed help? Or a penalty for delay?

Innovative campaigns to add value to riding present transit – more reliable service, friendlier drivers less often absent, creative promotions of transit service, cleaner cars and more – would also help.

The county might offer unique economic incentives for riders, form special interest groups of passengers during trips, provide entertainment, issue buttons and badges for proud transit users or find other ways to make transit riding a badge of honor, not dishonor.

Name a popular entertainer the county’s transit spokesman of the month or the year. Hire an independent transit event firm with a budget. Be creative.

Folks, it all starts with what we have today. If we let it keep falling apart – and make no mistake, statistics prove it’s falling apart – there will be no central core left for the new Smart plan to link into when it finally comes on line.

New York City was desperate enough to listen to ideas. Aren’t we?

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