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.

The skeletal condition of the bus system is a bane to those who most need public transportation. According to another 1994 MDTA survey, about half of all Metrobus riders are unemployed, with about two-thirds reporting annual household incomes of less than $20,000. Nearly 80 percent said the main reason they rode the bus was that they had no car or didn't drive. Metrorail passengers, on the other hand, are a comfortable lot: According to the same survey, nearly one-third have household incomes of $40,000 or more. The vast majority cited traffic congestion and parking problems as their reasons for riding the rail.

Even worse, with the advent of Metrorail a far greater percent of bus routes were eliminated from low-income neighborhoods than from high-income ones. As part of his college senior thesis, Kendall native and Harvard economics student Eric Nierenberg compared bus maps from 1983 (pre-Metrorail) and 1995 (post-Metrorail) and calculated the number of bus routes passing through each of Dade's census tracts. Census tracts with a median household income of less than $10,000 suffered a loss in bus service of more than 50 percent, Nierenberg found, while tracts with median household incomes of greater than $40,000 experienced only a 13.2 percent decrease.

Though Nierenberg counted only bus routes and not the actual number of buses per census tract, he says that a preliminary analysis of about a quarter of the tracts revealed that the reduction in actual frequency was even greater in the lower-income areas. "When they introduced Metrorail, they cut back on bus service partly because they thought they'd eliminate overlap [with Metrorail] and partly to prevent ballooning costs," Nierenberg says. "But the majority of service they cut was in lower-income areas. They built a system that's supposed to help poor people but it actually penalized poor people."

Roosevelt Bradley, MDTA's new assistant director of bus operations and maintenance, hasn't studied the socioeconomic impact of bus cuts and therefore can't comment on Nierenberg's findings. But Bradley says that no matter where he goes in Dade -- whether to wealthy neighborhoods or poor ones -- residents complain that there aren't enough buses. "The public is definitely screaming for more service, and more service means to provide more buses," he acknowledges, putting the ideal number of buses at somewhere between 800 and 1000.

Unfortunately, say Bradley and his boss, MDTA Director Chester "Ed" Colby, there just isn't any money for such a purchase. "We're not expanding anything," confirms Colby. "We haven't had a budget that's had money in it for a long time."

In spite of Metrorail's less-than-stellar public reception, the two most ambitious transit-improvement projects now under way in Dade -- meant to unclog two congested roadways, State Road 836 and NW 27th Avenue -- are rail-centered. Though both are still in the study phase, buses are an afterthought, if a thought at all.

The State Road 836 study, commonly known as the East-West Corridor Project, is aimed at relieving the gridlock along the Dolphin Expressway, which runs from I-95 to Florida's Turnpike. It calls for carpool lanes, an expressway link between 836 and State Road 112 to the north, and a multimodal transportation station east of Miami International Airport. The project's primary component is an elevated Metrorail track to run from the Palmetto Expressway to the Port of Miami.

And the bus? Kouroche Mohandes, a Florida Department of Transportation engineer who is coordinating the project, says that if the rail is built, planners would reconfigure the bus system to provide feeder service. There has also been talk of sending express buses along the carpool lanes before the rail is finished. The entire project is expected to cost about $2.5 billion.

Transit maven Norman Wartman is looking for more immediate attention. He proposes constructing bus-only lanes along the Turnpike between Kendall Drive and NW 41st Street, and on State Road 836 between the Turnpike and Le Jeune Road. He says there's plenty of room either in the median or along the roadside to build the special lanes. "We could do it cheap as mud and for a fraction of the cost of one mile of rail," Wartman declares. Until the rail is built, the bus routes could help to develop a transit ridership. When the rail is built, they would feed the system at a station planned for the intersection of the Palmetto and SR 836. Wartman has introduced the idea to planners. "They said they'd 'think about it,'" he scoffs.

The second big transit project is the North Corridor Transit Study, intended to unclog the 27th Avenue artery. Commissioners have narrowed the possible designs to three. Two involve building an elevated Metrorail extension up NW 27th Avenue to 215th Street, with offshoot extensions to Joe Robbie Stadium and Miami-Dade Community College's North Campus. The third involves the construction of a reversible bus lane. The county is awaiting funds to pay for an environmental impact statement for the study. Planners, as well as several county commissioners -- particularly Art Teele and Betty Ferguson -- are gung-ho about the rail. Preliminary studies have concluded that the rail is half as cost-effective as the bus but will attract five to six times more new riders.

There are detractors (among them a commissioner or two) who say it looks like another enormous waste of money. One county consultant has estimated that a Metrorail extension up NW 27th Avenue will increase rail ridership by about 23,000 trips per day but will encourage only about 4800 new public-transportation riders. The line's estimated cost: between $453 million and $463 million, depending on its placement. Using a formula that figures annualized capital costs, planners estimate that the system will cost between $17.80 and $18.22 per new rider. (A busway wouldn't be much rosier: It is estimated to attract only about 800 new transit riders per day, although at a far more cost-efficient rate of $9.23 per new passenger.)

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