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.

I do not know how to drive. I rely on Metro-Dade bus transit, though I wish I did not have to. I need to get to work and make a living. I really hope things improve for us bus transit users. Any advice?

Rose de la Cruz
If Metrobus is indeed the neglected stepchild of the Metro-Dade Transit Agency (MDTA), then Metrorail and Metromover are its overindulged siblings, show ponies to Metrobus's workhorse.

The numbers clearly delineate this unbalanced relationship:
Metrobus serves more than 201,000 one-way passengers each weekday; Metrorail and Metromover combined serve fewer than 65,000.

Metrobus routes cover a service area of 500 square miles; the rail systems stretch a paltry 23 miles.

In the past fiscal year, Metrobus boasted revenues of $52.1 million -- 73 percent of MDTA's total revenue; Metrorail and Metromover pulled in only $13.4 million, or 19 percent.

More significantly, Metrobus was able to recoup 42 cents of every dollar deposited into the farebox, one of the highest rates among U.S. public bus systems and far superior to the 24-cent return on every dollar expended at the turnstile for Metrorail and Metromover. (The so-called farebox recovery has never been higher than 27 cents per dollar for the rail system.)

Despite its greater utility and productivity, Metrobus splits local funding fairly equally with the rail systems. During the past fiscal year, for example, Metrobus received 47 percent ($47.5 million) of the property tax dollars allocated to the transit system, while the rail systems received 43 percent ($43.3 million).

Metrobus costs $1.97 to operate per one-way passenger. Metrorail costs $3.34 per passenger, Metromover $2.21. (In a 1994 study undertaken by transportation researchers at the University of South Florida, Dade County showed the highest operating expense per passenger trip among five metropolitan rail systems surveyed. Metrobus finished in the middle of the pack in a similar survey of seven bus systems.)

Metrorail didn't always seem like a bad idea. The notion of a rail system gained currency during the 1974 oil embargo and the attendant panic about the potential for three-dollar-a-gallon gas prices. Here and elsewhere, civic and government leaders began envisioning mass-transit alternatives to the automobile, and many hit on an elevated rail as a solution.

Predicting Metrorail would serve more than 250,000 one-way passenger trips daily by the mid-Eighties, the county's consultants recommended a 54-mile, 54-station plan, the first leg of which would run from Kendall to Hialeah. Academics believed the system was inappropriate for a sprawling megalopolis like Miami and was destined to flop. But the federal government agreed with the consultants and financed 80 percent of the approximately $1.2 billion construction costs. In 1984 the Kendall-to-Hialeah line opened -- and almost immediately became an embarrassment of national proportions.

Ignoring prevailing theory, designers did not build tracks along roads that already had a high volume of public transportation (and therefore a built-in ridership). Instead the route passed through low-density neighborhoods, went nowhere near major tourist attractions, and was badly integrated with the bus system, inspiring critics to lambaste it as a service designed for South Dade's middle class at the expense of the transit-dependent, urban-dwelling poor. Ridership figures fell far short of initial projections. The system became known as Metrofail.

Without the anticipated rail ridership to help defray costs, the county was forced to suck money away from the bus system. A promised augmentation of the bus fleet was delayed, and commissioners forged ahead with the next rail stage: Metromover.

After the downtown loop was completed in 1986, Metrorail ridership figures increased by fewer than 10,000 trips per year A at a price of an additional six million dollars per year in operational costs. (Simultaneously, bus ridership decreased by nearly 5000 trips annually.) Still, at the beginning of this decade, when the time came to build the Metromover's extensions to the Omni and Brickell, there was again little hesitation.

Among the plan's critics, however, was the transit workers' union, whose leaders argued that the money should go toward beefing up the bus system. "I think too much priority was placed on [the Metromover]," complains Eddie Talley, president of Transport Workers Union Local 291. "During the time money was allocated to the new legs, we tried to get the county to use the money to double the bus fleet as they had promised. Instead we have an expanded Metromover downtown that turned out to be a detriment to the bus system."

That vaunted bus-system augmentation never did come to be. Today the county has an operating fleet of about 600 buses, "essentially the same" number in use when Metrorail opened in 1984, according to Vernon Clarke, general superintendent of the MDTA's bus operations division. Moreover, Clarke says, at any given time about 120 of those buses are in the shop for repairs. "During the peak hours, we need to have approximately 480 to 490 buses on the road," Talley notes. "We're scraping the bottom of the barrel to get that."

The size of the fleet certainly hasn't kept pace with Dade's population, which has grown by fifteen percent since 1984. A maintenance facility built in the early Eighties to house 1500 buses has been abandoned by MDTA and is now leased to the school system for one dollar a year.

Fewer buses serving a larger and more widespread population means less-frequent service, a common complaint among riders. A 1994 MDTA report summarizing that year's schedule illuminates the problem: During peak hours, buses on no more than 26 of 72 routes ran at fifteen-minute intervals or better. On about half the routes, passengers couldn't hope for more than one bus every half an hour. Of those, at least eighteen routes required a wait of up to an hour or more. The figures haven't improved significantly since then. (By comparison, Metrorail trains run no more than twenty minutes apart -- there's a train every seven minutes during morning and afternoon rush hours -- and Metromover cars come at six-minute intervals.)

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