Mud on the Tracks

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

Dermer, who favors increased use of bus services, would have none of it. "There is no time element here, sir!" he bellowed as he jabbed at the air with a pencil. Referring to Barreiro, he continued, "I've got a county commissioner coming in here, sick out of bed, to tell me the truth! What is that all about, sir? Who do you work for?" Delighted anti-Bay Link members of the audience cheered and applauded and Fernandez watched helplessly as Dermer rose from his seat. "We have been bamboozled here!" he raged. "And I am upset about this, as the mayor of Miami Beach!"

In the pandemonium that followed, several commission members backed off their readiness to cast a vote on phase two. Instead the commission decided to delay a decision until they could sort out the confusion. The MPO subsequently relented and gave Miami Beach until September 25 to make a decision about Bay Link.

At a cost of $160,000, the Beach in May hired its own consulting firm, Henningson, Durham and Richardson (HDR), to examine the study that had been prepared by Parsons, MPO's consultants. HDR concluded its work last month. At a July 10 commission workshop the firm reported that Miami Beach would be best served by an electric trolley system that would be lighter and less intrusive than the one originally proposed by MPO. Essentially HDR affirmed manager Gonzalez's earlier recommendation to the commission.

Mayor David Dermer believes most residents don't want the trolley and that advocates are plotting for profits
Mayor David Dermer believes most residents don't want the trolley and that advocates are plotting for profits
Former Mayor Neisen Kasdin spearheaded the light-rail plan and believes Dermer's opposition arises from personal animosity
Steve Satterwhite
Former Mayor Neisen Kasdin spearheaded the light-rail plan and believes Dermer's opposition arises from personal animosity

At a special meeting on Monday, September 8, the mayor and commissioners are expected to vote on Bay Link's fate. According to MPO's Fernandez, the commission vote will be decisive. "A no vote kills Bay Link," Fernandez says emphatically. "The MPO will then likely turn its attention to other transit projects in the county."

The stakes are exceedingly high, not only because of Bay Link's potential long-term impact on Miami Beach's traffic woes, and not only because hundreds of millions of dollars hang in the balance, but also because the city is in the heat of a political season. The trolley has emerged as the single most volatile issue leading up to a general election to be held November 4.

Mayor Dermer and commissioners Luis Garcia, Simon Cruz, and Matti Bower are up for re-election. Garcia and Cruz, avid Bay Link supporters, have already drawn challengers who oppose the project. Bower, who initially supported Bay Link, changed her mind after the March 10 meeting. She now opposes the project, and perhaps not coincidentally is not being challenged for her commission seat. Dermer is facing a novice challenger who poses no threat. The situation could change for both Dermer and Bower, however. The filing deadline does not expire until the end of the day Friday, September 5.

Cruz, as well as other advocates for Bay Link, maintains that much of David Dermer's fierce opposition is based not on the strengths or weaknesses of the project but rather on the fact that it was the brainchild of his predecessor and political rival Neisen Kasdin, who served as mayor from 1997 through 2001. "It's definitely a factor," says Cruz, "otherwise I have a difficult time understanding why he's so against it."

Kasdin himself believes that Dermer's objection to Bay Link is at least partly a result of the enduring animosity between the two men. "It's a clear element," he says, "but Bay Link is the single most important issue facing Miami Beach in the last 30 years. It would be criminal for petty politics to derail it."

During his final two years in office, Kasdin won MPO approval for the initial Bay Link study, which was completed in 2002. He also persuaded MPO to add Bay Link to the county's long-range transportation strategy, which became known as the People's Transportation Plan during the half-penny sales-tax campaign last year. (Adding the trolley project to the plan would allow it to benefit from the dedicated source of income generated by the tax.)

Kasdin, an attorney with the firm Gunster Yoakley, says he was first sold on the idea of a light-rail system following a presentation by the nonprofit Miami Beach Community Development Corporation that highlighted the Beach's streetcar system from the Twenties and Thirties. The old-fashioned streetcars fanned out from downtown Miami to Coral Gables and Miami Beach until 1939, when the arrival of diesel-powered buses pushed them aside.

In that 80-year-old system, along with the recent rebirth of light rail in cities like Sacramento and Portland, Kasdin saw a possible solution to Miami Beach's traffic congestion. "Light rail is the most progressive form of transit to be built in major cities in the last ten to fifteen years," he says. "One, it provides a better way for people to move around congested urban areas like Miami Beach. Two, light rail is environmentally friendlier than a bus. And three, light rail has rider acceptability. The reality is that buses are viewed as a transportation mode of last resort, but people are willing to give up their cars to ride light rail."

Just as important, he adds, a light-rail system will help maintain the city's economic vitality. Without viable mass transit, Miami Beach will choke in the congestion caused by expected new residential and commercial projects. Traffic volume on the MacArthur Causeway alone jumped 39 percent between 1990 and 2002, according to a recent Florida Department of Transportation report. By 2025 average daily traffic on the causeway could reach 74,379 cars, compared with 66,166 cars in 2000. "It is going to become more difficult for Miami Beach residents to get around," Kasdin predicts. "If that happens, the young urban professionals will say goodbye to the Beach and go to Miami, Coral Gables, and other communities where mass transit is welcome."

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