Mud on the Tracks

Question: Is an electric trolley right for Miami Beach? Answer: Don't believe anything that scumbag says!

A majority of Miami Beach residents, the city manager, a former mayor, and business owners and the commuters they employ all want to pursue an ambitious proposal to bring mass transit to the Beach. The plan calls for a modern electric trolley that would run on tracks, draw power from an overhead wire, and connect downtown Miami and Miami Beach via the MacArthur Causeway. Proponents say it will keep traffic -- and dollars -- flowing smoothly to the Beach.

This past May a respected polling firm conducted a survey of registered Beach voters that showed strong support for the project, called Bay Link. But if you listen to Miami Beach Mayor David Dermer, you might think the survey was bogus and that a light-rail trolley heading into his enclave amounts to the worst catastrophe for the Beach since bad-boy developer Thomas Kramer set foot on the island.

It was Kramer who waged a $1.5 million personal war against a 1997 ballot measure known as Save Miami Beach, which required public approval of any waterfront construction that sought an increase in the property's zoned density. Dermer, who vaulted to local prominence as a leader of the grassroots Save Miami Beach movement, fought back with a campaign dubbed "Kramer's Big Lie," which helped ensure passage of the referendum and killed a land-swap deal between Kramer and the city.

Back to a mass-transit future: Before gas-guzzling buses dominated, Miami Beach did just fine with electric trolleys like this one
Back to a mass-transit future: Before gas-guzzling buses dominated, Miami Beach did just fine with electric trolleys like this one

Now the mayor, who faces re-election in November and prides himself on being a populist hero, has targeted Bay Link, charging that voters are being hoodwinked by special interests who want to tear up city streets, walk away with lavish profits, and leave local residents with a traffic-congestion crisis the likes of which they've never seen. (Bay Link proponents, opponents, and an overwhelming majority of local residents agree that traffic congestion -- bad now and certain to get worse -- is the city's most pressing problem.)

Dermer's first display of unrepressed Bay Link outrage -- and a hint of things to come -- took place March 10, during a special meeting of the Miami Beach City Commission. By then the mayor and six commissioners already had been through phase one of the Bay Link proposal: a $1.5 million study, prepared by the consulting firm Parsons Brinckerhoff, that recommended light rail as the best mass-transit option for Miami Beach. Parsons endorsed an electric-train system that could carry up to 120 passengers at a time. The train would run along the center median of some of South Beach's main arteries, requiring the realignment of traffic lanes and the loss of a substantial number of on-street parking spaces. The report also included a possible route: from the MacArthur Causeway at Fifth Street north along Alton Road, then east on Seventeenth Street to Washington Avenue, south back to Fifth Street, and west to the causeway and Miami. (On the Miami side, the trolley would loop through downtown, utilizing Biscayne Boulevard for much of its route.)

In addition to receiving the Parsons study, city commissioners by March had attended numerous public hearings, and six of them (along with top city administrators) had taken a week-long tour of several West Coast cities with light-rail systems in place. The tour convinced city manager Jorge Gonzalez that a trolley system similar to Portland's was the best solution for Miami Beach. The electric trolley he urged upon city commissioners would be smaller than the Parsons train, would share traffic lanes with motorists, and would eliminate few if any curbside parking spots.

The March 10 meeting had been convened at the urging of Miami-Dade's Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), a transportation planning board whose membership consists of elected officials from throughout the county, including Miami Beach. MPO warned Beach elected officials that if they didn't vote soon to proceed with phase two -- preliminary engineering plans and a final environmental impact statement -- the federal government might divert its share of allotted funding to other mass-transit and public-works initiatives. The threat of losing the feds' contribution -- up to half of Bay Link's $400 million expected cost -- loomed large. Worse, MPO officials cautioned, it might be another six years before new federal transit funding would become available.

City hall was packed with both supporters and opponents of the plan, and the commission was ready to vote -- all except Dermer, that is, who was determined to put off a decision. He had two influential allies in attendance: Miami-Dade County Commissioner Bruno Barreiro, who supports expanding Metromover, the elevated monorail in downtown Miami; and Miami-Dade transit chief Danny Alvarez, who fears the Bay Link project will siphon off federal funding from the county's more costly Metrorail expansion plans. There was no need to rush to a vote, the two informed the commissioners, and no impending threat of lost funding, despite warnings from MPO officials.

But then Wilson Fernandez, MPO's specialist on Bay Link, took to the speaker's podium and contradicted Barreiro and Alvarez. "The project will not be eligible for a full funding agreement from the Federal Transit Administration unless you move on to the next phase," he said. "The longer you wait, the greater the possibility your window of opportunity will close."

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