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 north corridor Metrorail leg might be an economically worthwhile option, critics say, if it were to hook into Broward's transportation system. One proposal is to run the extension up to the Broward Mall at the intersection of University Drive and Broward Boulevard. But already the Plantation City Council has passed a resolution opposing a railroad track running through their city to the mall.

Proponents say the rail has no chance of becoming profitable until it's fully complete, that our investments in this century will pay off in the next. It's an argument that taxes the patience of Miami attorney Richard Friedman, who led a citizens' fight against the construction of Metrorail. "That big lie has been perpetuated in all the writings of MDTA," Friedman complains. "They used the same argument [to expand] the Metromover. At one point they said, 'We only have half the Metromover, so unless we complete it we won't be able to attract all these people who are going to jump on the Metrorail.'"

Even Commission Chairman Art Teele, who supports both corridor projects, decries the inadequacies of Metrobus. "It's horrible!" he exclaims. "I don't think we need to build another inch on this rail system until we rationalize and make sense of our bus system. The problem is, what can you do? When you have a troubled company, it's hard without money to solve the problems. It's like pulling up a blanket that's too small for the bed. Something's going to be uncovered."

There's no guarantee, Teele adds, that any of the extensions will ever be built. "Dade County is as far back in the queue to get federal transportation dollars as Butte, Montana, is to get FBI agents," he says.

Federal and state assistance has been drying up in recent years, explains Danny Alvarez, MDTA deputy director for administration, with federal operating subsidies for MDTA dropping in the past decade from about $18 million to about $7 million. Dade is still without a local funding source solely earmarked for public transportation -- a dedicated revenue source that would vastly improve the county's chances of winning matching federal funds. Voters have twice rejected efforts to create a special transit sales tax, in 1990 and again in 1991.

Wartman says it's unlikely the public is going to look kindly on another attempt in the near future. "It's going to take a massive increase in the faith of the population, and that's only going to be done when they see us move a lot of people at a reasonable cost," he says. "If you have someone you've given money to, and they've gone and blown that money, are you going to give them money later? Because of the mistakes of the past, we're screwed now."

INTERLUDE: A MOMENT IN THE DRIVER'S SEAT
A total of 1084 people work as Metrobus operators. The majority are black (713) and male (913). They make good wages, ranging from a rookie rate of $7.28 per hour to a veteran's top scale of $15.98. On top of that, they have the opportunity to work a lot of overtime.

"This is one of the few places that a minority can come in and get a decent-paying job and not have educational requirements. But don't let the rates fool you," cautions Eddie Talley, who was hired as a bus operator in 1966, and continued driving even after becoming full-time union president in 1989. According to Talley, Metrobus operators work for fifteen to twenty years -- and die an average of three years after they retire. None has lived more than ten years after turning in his keys.

"The doors open up and the driver gets the brunt of all the negatives out there in the street, not to mention all the bad traffic, people bringing all their bad driving habits from other countries," Talley carps. "And we're expected to maintain our schedule out there!"

One of the first black drivers hired by Dade County, Franklin Jenkins ranks as MDTA's senior driver, with 34 years behind the wheel. The key to his longevity? "I try not to get upset," he ventures. "You hear things from passengers and you just have to let it go. If cars cut you off, you don't let it bother you. It's nerve-racking and everything else."

Richard Roberts was hired as an operator in 1963, a year and a half after Jenkins. "It's more stressful now than when I started," says Roberts, an avuncular man who favors tinted bifocals and a goatee. Like Jenkins, Roberts is slender, a rarity among Dade's beefy bus corps. "The traffic is a lot worse and the passengers are a lot worse," he explains. "Back then if you asked somebody to do something, they usually did it. Now if you ask somebody to do something, they tell you where to go. You learn over the years that you need to laugh it off, not get uptight. If you do, you end up retaliating."

Indeed, Metrobus headquarters receives plenty of complaints about rude or dangerous drivers, and about operators who have bypassed waiting passengers. (It's not uncommon in Dade to hear out-of-town riders marvel at the antics required to flag down a bus; some drivers seem only to stop for the equivalent of a full-bore cheerleading maneuver.)

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