SEE IT! Inside the Transit Crisis in Miami

Train to nowhere? Photo: Clarence Eckerson Jr.
Train to nowhere? Photo: Clarence Eckerson Jr.

Transit in Miami is in shambles. Bus service is increasingly slow and unreliable and bus ridership is plunging in response. Transit officials came barely track their own service — including numerous missed train runs per day.

Meanwhile, Miami-Dade County officials endlessly debate where to build expensive new rail lines, with barely a nod to the transit system’s obvious problems.

Enter Transit Alliance Miami. In just two years, the organization has developed data to illustrate the depth of Miami-Dade’s transit crisis and has started to develop an agenda to take the region forward. It begins with reversing the decline in today’s bus system, not with billions for new rail lines that would be delivered to an inept operation.

If Miami can fix its transportation institutions and really deliver on the service it already offers, the foundation for future transit expansion will be far more secure.

41 thoughts on SEE IT! Inside the Transit Crisis in Miami

  1. Practice what you preach. How about the Bay Area doing the same darn thing rather than wasting billions upon billions on half-baked rail extensions.

  2. I wouldn’t call SMART half-baked. BART Antioch extension was built with less waste using DMU. San Jose BART is closes a major network gap, so it’s debatable what part of it half-baked.

    I will give you Millbrae/SFO extension as half-baked. The Millbrae station was unnecessary and Caltrain Transfer could’ve been done in San Bruno

  3. You are correct. SMART wasn’t baked at all. Biggest waste of money since BART’s wasteful OAK connector, which was so bad that the Feds pulled funding from the project.

  4. I have a slight soft spot for airport connectors since it does get the job done and I typically avoid transit to airport that doesn’t have a way to get you all the way there without getting stuck in traffic.

    I took the bus to Oakland Airport ONCE, and never again. I missed the first bus because it required a weird BART ticket with exactly 2 dollars on it and even then got stuck in traffic to make my avoid the airport completely. Airport extensions are rarely cheap, but once built, it’ll be around forever… just like NY subway built over a 100 years ago.

  5. SMART would be SMART if it provided a relatively seamless connection to other regional transit. Instead, it drops you off in San Rafael where you take a bus to the Larkspur ferry which then takes you to the Embarcadero where you can then walk to BART or take Muni to Caltrain.

  6. You must be a fan of kicking projects before they finish. Yeah SMART is unfinished … the Larkspur connection is under construction now. SMART was a bargain of a system – reviving a disused ROW … it got stood up on what was there … now they are building new things …. SMART will also eventually need double-tracking, electrification and go more places … but if we demanded all that at the start, we would have nothing.

    US saw no investment in transit in what? 50 years? …. it does not get undone in a week.

  7. I don’t see BART to Millbrae as much of a problem as it’s a massive park&ride right off 101 that you wouldn’t have been able to shoehorn into downtown San Bruno.

    What I see as particularly idiotic and wasteful there is the wye/double BART spur to SFO. Unless you’re catching a flight at the Int’l terminal you have to transfer to the APM anyway. Extending the APM to Millbrae would’ve given everyone access to BART, to Caltrain, to local buses, and to whatever future HSR service we wind up with.

  8. The problems coincide with the merging of Transit and Public Works several years ago. Transit has no Full-Time Captain steering the ship.

  9. But the Larkspur “connection” is a misnomer. It’s not actually going to connect to you with the ferry. It’s going to drop you off behind the movie theater where you’ll have to cross a parking lot, a busy road, an even bigger parking lot, an even busier road . . . and wind up walking about 1/3 of a mile to get to the boat.

  10. SMART is an expensive failure, and there’s no sign of that changing. Instead of building an innovative busway that would have allowed seamless express service all the way from SF to Sonoma County, we are stuck with a train that operates every 60-90 minutes DURING RUSH HOUR. The train stations are difficult to access, almost completely lack good connecting bus service, and don’t even have many parking spaces. The service completely duplicates existing bus lines and does such a poor job of it that those bus lines can’t even be cancelled so the resources can be moved elsewhere.

    If SMART had been built as a busway, it could have been bi-directional with buses every 2-3 minutes–similar to what currently runs along Highway 101 during rush hour–and the extra construction savings could have gone towards years of operating costs. Instead there are mostly empty trains running (except for the two trains that immediately follow those 60- and 90-minute gaps) while all those buses continue to sit on the congested freeway. Icing on the cake is SMART’s Larkspur extension, which will go to a station 1/3-mile away from the actual ferry terminal. Not to mention the double fare compared to just taking the GGT bus directly. Only the heartiest train foamers are going to bother with the extra cost and nonsense connection at Larkspur.

  11. That was the original plan (but to/from San Bruno) until politicians got involved. Thank you, politicians, for ruining yet another thing in this country by not deferring to subject matter experts.

  12. What are you talking about? This is Streetsblog USA and the author lives in New York City.

  13. Kicking projects? I tell you what…how about you commute on what I described above on a daily basis for a year and report back. Until then…

  14. Correct. Now, most days, if you’re riding northbound on Caltrain you have to get off at Millbrae, transfer to BART, ride it to San Bruno and then transfer again to an SFO train. Off peak you can transfer directly at Millbrae to an SFO train.

  15. Caltrain moved the San Bruno station a few years ago and BART/Caltrain easily could have designed a double station at the current Caltrain location. But, BART chose Tanforan instead.

  16. Every East Bay BART extension that has gone north/east of Richmond, south of Hayward, or east of the hills has been a waste and, in the absence of a 2nd tunnel has only added to the capacity problems. It’s a big part of the reason BART is in no hurry to open Milpitas let alone Berryessa.

    Look at NYC, Chicago, Paris, London, Tokyo – none of these places run heavy rail, metro service 30 or 40 miles out into the suburbs. At most you might get 13 maybe 15 miles out from the city center on the subway. Further than that and you have to take regional rail (aka Caltrain, Metra, LIRR, NJTransit, RER, JR, etc.). It’s because the decreasing densities away from the core and the increasing proportion of residential uses makes metro systems less and less cost-effective.

    The 3rd rail of BART is expensive infrastructure. It also requires full grade separation – which makes it even more expensive. It’s also built on that idiotic 6 ft. gauge which makes everything from sleepers to ballast to rail cars more expensive to build and maintain. All service east of the hills and south of Hayward should’ve been much cheaper to build and operate regional rail that runs on a schedule built around suburban demands. All that money that was spent on getting BART over the hills should’ve gone into BART down Geary and San Pablo.

  17. Agreed. They could’ve had a shared station at San Bruno Ave. I think, though, that in terms of having that large, end-of-line park&ride with easy 101 access and also being able to accommodate service from the APM that Millbrae was a good move.

    I mean, if I were transit king, BART would run over/under El Camino down to the Hayward Park Caltrain station where it would then continue in the 92 ROW and over the San Mateo bridge, through Hayward, and back up to Oakland. But, you know, no one asked me .

  18. Miami is hopeless. After visiting the area many times over the last few years, and trying to use transit when possible, I’ve given up and just use Uber. Yes, the express bus gets you from the airport to Miami Beach quickly for like $2.65 but the airport is so stupidly set up that it takes 20 min just to get to the bus terminal so zero people use it. This story of transit-existing-but-inconvenient-to-use story is told over and over. You can be standing next to a Metromover station, which is free to use, but I guarantee you cannot actually get anywhere on it faster than taking a cab, and often not faster than walking, because the system is so !@#!$%!% slow. (Even if the car is empty it waits 30 seconds with the doors open at each station, then crawls to the next one, following a non-linear route). You can be standing next to a Metrorail station at the University of Miami, yet despite the billions spent to run Metrorail to the airport it is always faster to drive because the metrorail runs in a C shape when a car will simply drive due north, plus that whole aforementioned 20 minute walk/shuttle/walk from the airport station to the terminal.

    Meanwhile, the things most people actually want to get to in Miami — Miami Beach, the cruise ships, the baseball stadium, the football stadium — have no transit access of any kind. The commuter rail runs from nowhere to nowhere on the I-95 corridor instead of somewhere to somewhere on the US1 corridor (sorry, only private rail there), every proposed light rail line has been killed, and most parts of town now have stupid diesel “trolleys” that just go in circles but are actually popular because actual transit service is so bad.

    Just tear it all out, send in the robots, and start again.

  19. I think that’s why the author and others think the solution may be in buses and busways rather than more rail extensions.

  20. No, seriously, who is preaching here?
    Do you think that Streetsblog USA can’t post a story about Miami without Streetsblog USA first swarming the Bay Area and fixing up all their transit?
    Miami/Florida transportation dollars supposed to flow here to improve SFMTA Muni Metro headways?

  21. I don’t see what you mean by waste for stations south of Hayward. Fremont station has the highest ridership of any station south of Lake Merritt, so you’re overlooking a lot of demand.

    NYC runs 3rd rail heavy rail all over Long Island, and much of England south of London runs heavy rail via 3rd rail.

    Also, 2nd tunnel isn’t really needed, since existing tube has tons of capacity remaining. BART runs about 22 trains per hour through the tube, but systems around the world can run 36 trains per hour. While BART might not be able to get to 36, 30 trains per hour is reasonable upgrade. Currently holding this up are:
    1) Dwell time – addressed with new 3-door trains
    2) Power – addressed by new power substation going under Civic Center and Montgomery
    3) More cars – Need to run more trains. Cars ordered, will be coming online over the next few years
    4) New Control System – This one is probably furthest away, but moving block system will allow closer train spacing. Muni has this and you can observe how when two trans are behind one another, when first train starts moving, the following starts moving shortly later keeping smaller distance and slow speed.

  22. Busway? You’re talking nonsense, as a comparison, Novato narrows adds 17 miles of lanes for $700 million dollars. I’d imagine elevated lanes would cost more. SMART gave you 42 miles for less money than Novato Narrows widening will cost. And since it only adds 1 lane, it’s still narrow and will take just as long to traverse as today.

  23. “I don’t see what you mean by waste for stations south of Hayward.”
    Fremont is busy as the former terminus, a major bus hub for AC Transit and VTA, and a massive park & ride with over 2,000 spaces. That said, it blows its load during the peak and that station is crickets off-peak. Union City and Fremont could’ve just as easily been served by regional rail with service tailored to demand for far less money.

    “NYC runs 3rd rail heavy rail all over Long Island”
    Sure, LIRR uses 3rd rail as a legacy system. It didn’t get built in the 1970s when people knew better. It also doesn’t translate to LIRR running 10 minute headways to Ronkonkoma for 18 hours a day. Suburban trains that are only stopping every 3-5 miles don’t need that kind of traction especially when the off-peak trains are nearly empty once they get past Hayward. It’s superfluous and thus a waste of money

    “Also, 2nd tunnel isn’t really needed, since existing tube has tons of capacity remaining.”
    The tube doesn’t have tons of capacity remaining. BART knows this. It’s why the Board voted to move forward with it back in April. The 4 points you mentioned are great for getting more people through the tube. Which is in great in theory. Of course once you can get to even 30 trains per hour through the tube with every train a 10 car consist you’ll realize very quickly that Embarcadero, Montgomery, and Powell aren’t big enough to handle a full 10-car train discharging pax every minute (commuters on BART come from both directions). There aren’t enough escalators and the staircases aren’t wide enough to handle those crowds and it’s not possible to add more stairs because you have to punch through the Muni platforms to do it.

  24. The Coastal Link is going to radically transform rail in South Florida. In 18 months Miami Central will connect Brightline, Tri-Rail, Metrorail, and Metromover at one downtown station. Ridership on Tri-Rail alone is set to double. With Tri-Rail service on two routes with direct downtown service there will be knock on effects for Metrorail. The missing piece there is a connection to the Beach. It’s definitely neither necessary nor advisable to rip it all out and start over. A rail line to a stadium that might host 10 games a year is equally ill-advised. Subway systems all over the country have been going through a crisis of deferred maintenance over the last decade – WMATA, CTA, and MTA in particular and it’s because our last wave of major public investments in those systems was in the 1980s.

    Whenever I hear people say, “Now is not the time for rail expansion. We need better buses.” The hair on the back of my neck goes up. “Americans for Prosperity” might be switching tactics for a different market (going back to the tried and true “Bus Riders Union” of LA fame) and their videos a little more slick but after their anti-transit campaigns in Nashville, Phoenix, and Utah the Koch Bros are clearly passing the torch to Miami. Buses are great circulators, great for last mile, and for short trips on low-ridership, low-density routes. They’re terribly inefficient at line haul service. The busiest single route BRT line in the US – the Orange Line in LA (the Silver Line in Boston is actually 5 routes) – carries 1/3 the passengers that Metrorail does and is more or less at capacity with a huge price tag for the upgrades necessary to increase capacity. And all of that is besides the fact that the cost per passenger mile of Metrorail operations is around $0.60 while the same cost per pax mile of Metrobus is $0.81. Metrorail is expensive, sure, but by almost every metric it’s more efficient than the buses and that’s especially so when it comes to moving large numbers of people.

  25. Yeah, my stadium comment was a red herring, and I loathe buses (unless you go hard with full ROW, like Ottawa, but even they are now changing over from BRT to LRT). But I’m so frustrated by how horrible Miami-Dade Transit is that I can’t help wishing for a flood to wipe it all out (not unrealistic, as it turns out). Just tonight I came into town and passed by an express bus from the airport, now only $2.25 for flyers as the destination board flashes, and it had 2 people on it. One of those was the driver.

    As for Miami Central, I know all about it, but believe me, FEC will find a way to screw over Tri-Rail. It’s already happening.

    Miami needs a large, logical LRT system to save it from itself. Denver or Dallas would be good examples to learn from.

  26. A Streetsblog Florida would be great for expats like me. Plus it’s the 4th most populous state and number one or two for pedestrian/cyclist fatalties, depends on how they’re calculated by the numbers or per mile traveled.

  27. That’s a great point about transport costs vs perception of waste. The Bay Bridge and the Boston Tunnel went like $10 billion over budget, but politicians don’t demand we stop building bridges and tunnels. SMART cost a fraction of widening a few miles of 101, but it’s heavily criticized by the local media pundits, while “freeway” widening is treated as the holy grail. BART was ridiculously expensive for the 70’s and damaged federal transit funds for rail projects for decades. Bus subsidies are being pointed at by SF Chron columnists as an infringement on driving taxpayers, without understanding that they are primarily intended to benefit drivers by reducing traffic.

  28. I heard the real reason was that locating station closer to ferry terminal triggers automatic upzoning of land around it, but Larkspur didn’t want to build higher density anything.

    That would certainly fit in with attitudes in Marin regarding construction.

  29. Another unfortunate side-effect is that Millbrae is in Zone 2 resulting in more expensive ride to BART transfer. It’s also about 10 mins longer which reduces BART & Caltrain usage resulting in higher subsidies.

  30. SB 827 never passed . . . and even if it had it would’ve applied to equally to ferry terminals, train stations, and high frequency bus routes. The current watered down Assembly version (I haven’t read it yet) seems only to apply to BART stations. But yeah, a lot of people in Marin are irresponsible a-holes.

    I think more plausible reasons for not building a real connection between the two is a)it would require some form of viaduct which would be really expensive relative to the cost of the Larkspur extension itself b) Larkspur locals don’t want to see a light rail viaduct running across Francis Drake – they didn’t even want to see a pedestrian overpass – and c) a convenient connection would drive ridership that the ferry system can’t support – at least not during the peak.

  31. Thanks, I haven’t lived in my homestate since the 90’s, but do like to keep up on what’s happening. Now that you mention it, I do remember reading that. Not sure if that’s a good thing considering how Florida does development.

  32. Yeah I left in 2005 and hardly looked back. I keep up occasionally and there are sometimes bright spots but it’s usually all bleak.

  33. I grew up in Lauderdale in the 60’s and it was an idyllic beach town, now I can hardly stand to go back for more than a few days to see my family. I just read a book that came out in 2011, Finding Florida that lays bare all the historical, political, cultural reasons the state has been screwed. And yet, there’s been no shortage of visionaries who saw a better way, unfortunately lost out to short sighted profits.

  34. I grew up in Winter Park in the 90’s-00’s and my experience has largely been that the City of Orlando has been reasonable about implementing bike-ped infrastructure but the various suburbs largely haven’t been, and there are a lot of missed opportunities for rail/BRT that jump out at me from my Californian perspective that I never would have seen in high school.

  35. Dan Burden offered me the position of DOT Bicycle Coordinator for Orlando (or Naples) in 1983, but at the time I had decided to move to California, which I saw as bicycle mecca, (not really because Deukmejian was elected the next year and zero funded all bicycle and pedestrian programs). I felt snubbed because he didn’t offer me Broward County, where all my cycling contacts and history were, leaving in some engineer who never did anything. I might have accepted Winter Park, as I remember it as nice small town from the 70’s when we were there for a Boy’s Club tournament.

  36. The region has 2 transit agencies that are not connected and use different fare systems. Both belong to counties that deal with other issues and not concentrated on transit… Some Dade buses are getting worse and less reliable. Everything is becoming fragmented and required uncomfortable unreliable connections. The J form the airport should go north on Collins at least to Hallandale/Hollywood. Everything ends in Sunny Isles. The E was planned by some lunatic that made it go into endless loops. Nothing is directional up north, nothing is connected to Tri-rail or Brightline from the beaches. G is terminates shy of Opa loca tri rail. H could be extended to the GOlden glades Tri-rail. It’s so simple and logical, but instead they only cutting these routes. Who travels between Houlover and Walmart on 163rd?! Total disorganized unattractive dysfunctional mess and a tremendous waste of funds… Broward and Dade transit agencies must be dismantled and there needs to be a one regional transit system like in most major cities… Counties have way too may other issues to deal with, they can’t manage transit 100%.

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