Token Ridership

Metrobus is Dade's most effective public transportation. But when it comes to funding, the bus system and its patrons always get taken for a ride.

It's that time again, when local politicians crank up the rhetoric, express their profound concern, promise the impossible. And regardless of whether they've officially declared their candidacies, Dade's mayoral hopefuls are at the vanguard, plumbing the depths of credibility with their pretty come-ons to potential voters. Among their talking points: public transportation. And boy do they have plans for our transit system! Two politicos -- Metro Commission Chairman Art Teele and Xavier Suarez, former mayor of Miami -- have vowed to ratchet back bus and rail fares from $1.25 per ride to an alarmingly low 50 cents.

Of course, this will never happen. There's barely enough money to pay for the system as it is: It operates at a deficit of slightly less than $89 million annually (which is offset by property taxes, plus a penny per gallon from the county's six-cent gas tax). Lowering the cost of a trip by 75 cents would cut revenues by more than $29.5 million, and there's no evidence that a fare reduction would attract enough new riders to make up the shortfall, even if it were linked with other incentives, such as free parking at Metrorail stations (which now costs two dollars per day) and free transfers (now 25 cents apiece).

Furthermore, drastic financial modifications would require a drastic shift in the mindset prevalent among our public officials, which until now has been dominated by a love affair with trains. Though there's a consensus that Metrorail and its downtown offspring Metromover are one of the biggest American transportation boondoggles of the Twentieth Century, county officials are making plans to spend vast sums to extend the rail in at least two directions. The victims of the generation-old obsession with rail: Dade's bus system and the passengers who depend on it. Amid all the banter about rail, there is precious little talk about buses. "Metrobus is the forgotten stepchild," goes the common refrain. Passengers say it. Drivers say it. Transportation economists say it. Even some county bureaucrats say it (softly). The bus system is understaffed, underfunded, undersupplied, and undermaintained. There aren't enough buses on the road to adequately serve the existing ridership and not enough mechanics to maintain the buses the county does have.

"We basically gutted our bus system -- existing and potential -- gutted public works and highway projects on which buses would run, in order to put together the Metrorail system," says Norman Wartman, a long-time transit activist who now chairs a Metro-Dade transportation advisory board. "We've been paying for it ever since."

Wartman and other bus boosters are in favor of a back-to-basics approach to public transportation in Dade. They emphasize that unlike trains, bus routes are flexible and can be adjusted as demand warrants. "The foundation of the transit system is the carpools, the buses, the jitneys," Wartman argues. "We need to have the base of the pyramid broadened. Because this county is 50 miles deep by 30 miles wide, a little teensy line on the map is not a cure-all."

T. Willard Fair, president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Miami, agrees, but he's skeptical about the ability of Dade's public leadership to see the light. "We have a tendency in this community to initiate public policy for the emotional image of the community," says Fair, citing as an example the recent scramble to build a new arena downtown. "And the development of our rapid-transit system fits into that image-as-public-policy making. We have this notion that if we're going to have a first-class, 21st-century city, we need these massive developments."

And in order to acquire them, Fair concludes, "we are willing to sell our soul."

INTERLUDE: THE S BUS -- WAITING FOR GODOT
From the archives of the Metro-Dade Transit Agency Complaint Department:
To Whom It May Concern:

I am a regular user of public transportation, exclusively buses. I depend on Metro-Dade bus transit to take me to and from work. I take the S route bus at the corner of Eleventh Street and Alton Road (in front of the First Union Bank), going downtown. The usual time I am there is 10:00 a.m. to 10:15 a.m. daily. The bus service at this hour is terrible to say the least. I am not alone in this opinion.

I have had to wait 30 minutes for buses. Other times buses pass by but do not bother stopping because they feel they are "full."... Friday, August 11, 1995, I got to the bus stop around 10:10 a.m. I had just missed the bus, because I saw it leaving that bus stop a minute before. After approximately fifteen minutes, an S bus passed without stopping, motioning that there was another bus behind. That bus was an F/M bus, which I do not use, therefore it was no use to me. About 30 minutes later, another S passed by. This driver wasn't taking any more passengers either.... However, the next S bus that passed around 11:00 a.m was bus #1158. Finally I was on my way to work, though I start at 10:30 a.m.

I feel it is ridiculous to spend more time waiting for a bus than actually riding it. Will the bus service improve?...

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