Downtown-Miami Beach transit link nears stamp of approval
By Sherri C. Ranta
Official endorsement of a new mass transit link between Miami and Miami Beach, possibly a light rail system, is expected by mid-summer, although construction of the system is years away.
The Miami-Dade Metropolitan Planning Organization board is expected to select an option in July after weighing results of "Bay Link," a $1.5 million study by transportation engineering firm Parsons Brinckerhoff Quade & Douglas Inc., said Metropolitan Planning Organization project manager Wilson Fernandez.
Capital cost estimates for a light rail system range from $303 million to $380 million, not including right of way, said Parson Brinckerhoff senior project manager Larry Foutz. The estimates, he said, include three possible routes in downtown Miami and three in Miami Beach that could be combined in a number of ways.
Possible funding sources for the link, transportation systems, routes, construction costs, operating expenses and social, economic and environmental impacts are being studied, Mr. Foutz said. These would likely include include 50% from federal funds, 25% from the state and 25% in local funds.
"We will be looking for as many sources as possible, but it will be up to local governments to develop a stable funding source," Mr. Foutz said.
Local sources of funds could include the sales tax, toll revenues, convention development tax, parking fees or assessments districts. Specific operating and maintenance cost estimates for a light rail system are not yet available, he said.
Before the planning organization endorsed the Bay Link study last spring, former Miami Beach mayor Neisen Kasdin asked the Metropolitan Planning Organization to consider using some Convention and Development Tax dollars to finance the new connector. In a March 30, 2001, letter to MPO Secretariat Jose-Luis Mesa, Mr. Kasdin quoted a state statute that the tax "may be used to acquire and construct an inter-city light rail transportation system....which shall provide a means to transport persons to and from the largest existing publicly owned convention center in the county."
"When a tax was created in 1988, a light rail system was contemplated specifically," Mr. Kasdin said last year.
Light rail systems - distinguished by an overhead power source - plus rapid transit bus service and ferryboats are being considered, Mr. Fernandez said. He said Parsons Brinckerhoff officials are in phase one of the 18-month study, which is scheduled for completion in February 2003.
Mr. Fernandez said the firm has identified several potential systems and routes based on community input, and on Jan. 22 will present a "comparative conceptual analysis" to the project's Citizens Advisory Committee and Technical Advisory Committee.
The committees, he said, will continue the screening process, narrowing the list of possible options.
"We consider the citizens advisory committee a part of the consensus-building process. We take seriously what they tell us," Mr. Fernandez said.
The committee will meet at 9 a.m. at the Botanical Gardens Center, 2000 Convention Center Drive, Miami Beach.
Citizens Advisory Committee co-chair Martin. J. Hyman, a Miami Beach architect and planner, said the group would ultimately recommend one of three options: proceed with a light rail transit, improve existing roads or do nothing.
"As far as we're concerned we have an open mind, Mr. Hyman said. "I try to keep things from being polarized. We have to look at available options."
He said more than 100 people representing Miami and Miami Beach are on the committee. Mr. Hyman said he thinks the residential and business communities, including the major homeowner associations and development groups on the beach, are well-represented.
"This could have enormous impact on the City of Miami Beach. A lot of study and consideration has to go into this," he said.
Mr. Foutz said the firm is building upon the 1995 East-West Multimodal Corridor Draft Environmental Impact Statement in relation to the Miami-Miami Beach link.
"We're in the midst of a technical evaluation of alternatives and their alignment," he said.
Consultants are studying six variations of a light rail system, improvements to existing bus service - called rapid bus transit - and ferryboat operations, Mr. Foutz said. Location of the power source distinguishes light rail from heavy rail and commuter rail.
Among South Florida systems, TriRail is considered commuter rail and is powered by an engine. MetroRail is heavy rail, Mr. Foutz said, powered by a third rail. Heavy rail must be separated by grade - either elevated or located underground. Subways are heavy rail systems.
Light rail, Mr. Foutz said, costs about half the price of heavy rail and was popular in the US in the early 20th century. Systems operate in Europe and some US cities such as San Francisco, San Diego and Sacramento.
"Light rail is making a come back," he said.
A description of a proposed light rail system are online at the MPO website at www.miamidade.gov/mpo. All proposals, according to the site, will be coordinated with existing infrastructure, such as intermodal terminals, transit centers and services, fixed guideway and roadway facilities and pedestrian and bikeway paths.
Each option includes use of the MacArthur Causeway as the link across Biscayne Bay but different entry points into, and routes through, the two cities. The Miami Beach options include various routes through South Beach, the commercial district and the Miami Beach Convention Center area.
While the proposed routes are grouped under three options, officials say any could be interchanged.
Mr. Fernandez said Metropolitan Planning Organization officials charged consultants with finding a viable system rather than a pie-in-the sky alternative.
Metropolitan Planning Organization officials, as a sign of intent, he said, plan to raise the priority of the Miami-Miami Beach link project in the 2025 Long Range Transportation Plan for possible implementation in 2009-15. Money for such projects, by policy, requires a 50% local match with state and federal funds, he said.
After phase one of the project is complete in July, Mr. Fernandez said, with the selection of an option by Metropolitan Planning Organization board members, the study will enter its second phase with the completion of a final environmental impact statement and preliminary engineering phase in February 2003.