Just as mass transit succeeds, officials slam the door on it
By Michael Lewis
Over frustrating years, public officials fought in vain to unclog Miami's roadways by luring drivers out of cars and onto mass transit.
Finally it's working. Increased traffic and soaring fuel costs have pushed riders onto mass transit here and across the nation — 552,074 daily in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties last year and growing fast.
"In almost every transit system I talk to, we're seeing very high rates of growth in the last few months," William W. Millar, president of the American Public Transportation Association, was quoted in Saturday's New York Times.
But as Tri-Rail posted a 20%-plus passenger gain in March and April, as Metrorail, Metromover and Metrobus riders mounted and as auto traffic thinned — all long-sought aims — elected officials have ignored their objective.
In fact, budget-conscious government is reacting almost as if transit is the enemy. It's suddenly working, so we're cutting back.
Take Tri-Rail. As passengers soared to 350,000 monthly, the Legislature failed to fund the system. Meanwhile, the three counties that subsidize Tri-Rail are about to cut their own aid, which will slash state matching funds. As funding dwindles, the system is threatening to cut from 50 trains a day to 20 and shut down on weekends.
Commuters avoid sporadic transit. It was only after the federal government funded a second set of tracks to add service that Tri-Rail blossomed. Now it's about to frustrate its growing cadre of riders, dumping them back onto highways to rebuild congestion.
Next, take Miami-Dade's 900-plus buses, which last year hauled 278,900 riders daily. The county commission has just voted to drop nine routes that serve more than 6,000 a day and trim frequency on others in the 100-route system to save money. That while raising fares by 50 cents. Those bus riders will return to the highways to get to work.
Take Metrorail and Metromover. A county committee was to move this week to raise fares 50 cents on Metrorail.
It once cost 25 cents to loop around Brickell, downtown Miami and the Omni area on Metromover, but usage was so low that the county removed the fee and trains suddenly filled. Commissioners have recently talked about restoring the 25-cent fare.
Riding 22-mile-long Metrorail now costs $1.50, so the fare increase would be 33% — and the county is looking at automatic hikes every three years for Metrorail and Metrobus.
Pricing alters behavior. If government really wanted drivers to switch to transit, it would keep fares low and raise highway tolls. Raising transit fares just as gas prices are driving people off the highways and even considering a summer gas tax moratorium, as the Legislature did, sends signals to stay in your car.
And what about 2002's vote by Miami-Dade residents for a half percent tax to add mass transit and unclog roadways? The impact is being watered down as the county dips into the tax yields to support existing transit rather than add more, contravening what officials promised voters.
Indeed, since its inception through March the tax has yielded $881 million, but the county has just diverted more than $401 million of that to buy 136 Metrorail cars, most to just replace trains that wore down years too early because the county refused to maintain them properly.
Other bits and pieces of that tax fund also seem to dribble away without aiding transportation. This week, a county committee will vote on using $125,000 of the tax to exterminate bugs on Metrobuses. That's hardly the spirit for surtax use. It will just replace other funds to clean up new buses — coincidentally sending a message about how unpleasant it is to ride on them.
Meanwhile, transit tax collections are slowing with the economy, down $2.7 million over five months. As yields increasingly replace prior spending instead of expanding transit, the county cuts its bus routes, whose highly-touted growth the tax at first funded.
So mass transit prospects are becoming bleaker just when gasoline prices and population growth are increasing the need.
As rising costs make it ever harder for lower-wage workers to live near urban core employers, transit cuts add burdens not only on workers but also on the employers upon whose investments Miami depends.
This isn't to minimize the challenge of mass transit. In Miami-Dade, a system with 358,300 daily riders sucks in a $398.5 million annual operating budget for more than 4,000 employees. This is no simple operation, and growing it is no simple task.
But today, circumstances are virtually pushing riders into transit vehicles the way Tokyo's commuters are manually shoved into overcrowded rail cars.
It's what we've been striving for — and now officials seem to be working as hard as they can to undo it all and "prove" that mass transit can't work here.
Government needs desperately to summon the wisdom and the gumption to fund trains and buses to not only sustain current levels but to grow now that economic factors are urging commuters off the highways and onto transit. That requires subsidizing transit, not motorists with gas tax holidays. Those higher transit fares and service cuts do exactly the opposite of what we intend.
As it is, we talk the talk but we don't walk the walk onto transit — we drive would-be transit users back into their cars instead. We're snatching mass transit defeat from the very jaws of victory.