By Ryan Yousefi
By Chuck Strouse
By Terrence McCoy
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By Michael E. Miller
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Dermer insists his opposition to light rail is rooted in his notion of what's best for the city. "I've said it before -- 80 percent of the people I've spoken with do not want the streets torn up, tracks laid down, and overhead wires put up to make way for light rail," he says. In virtually the same breath, however, Dermer alleges that special interests are behind Bay Link, people who will profit from its construction. "It's obvious that those who would make money by digging up our streets and laying an actual track would not accept a much less disruptive proposal to paint lines on a street for a dedicated bus route," he charges. As for naming those special interests, Dermer claims ignorance: "I try to keep myself out of those circles."
But Dermer supporter Stuart Reed, a commission candidate who hopes to oust incumbent Luis Garcia in the November election, is not so circumspect. He openly accuses Kasdin of plotting to profit from the project. "He is certainly doing the work of a paid lobbyist," Reed asserts. "For all we know, he could be representing contractors who would gain work from building a light-rail system." (Kasdin categorically denies representing anyone who might profit from Bay Link. "It's all part of their red-herring campaign to discredit the project," he fumes. "The truth is their enemy, and lies are their tools.")
Dermer friend and advisor A.C. Weinstein, a columnist for the weekly Miami Beach SunPost, has also been on the attack, claiming that city manager Jorge Gonzalez is pushing an agenda on behalf of Kasdin and unnamed special interests from Miami. "The entire charade is the full responsibility of [Gonzalez]," Weinstein wrote in a July 3 column, referring to the work of the city's consultants. "He continues to push and will not budge from his commitment to get those tracks down." Weinstein, who declined comment, also wrote: "The big money coming into Miami Beach from the Miami side of the bay has had an enormous influence on the city manager and certain members of the city commission."
Gonzalez grows visibly irritated when discussing such charges. "My job is to make a professional recommendation and not a political recommendation," he says. "Some of the mayor's supporters have challenged my recommendation using arguments that play on people's fears, playing on the suspicion that certain people might be enriched if Bay Link goes through, and playing on false accusations that I have sold out to some lobbying interests that I don't even know."
While Dermer seems content to leave the mudslinging to others, he pushes for his solution to the Beach's growing traffic snarl. "The Bay Link proponents want to emphasize that this is the only option," he says, "but there are other, less expensive options out there that won't disrupt the city." Namely, more buses, and dedicating an exclusive lane for them using the same route proposed for the light rail. Dermer has held fast to this idea despite a poll commissioned in May by the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce that showed significant support for light rail.
The telephone survey, conducted by Washington, D.C.-based Schroth & Associates, posed two dozen questions about transportation to 300 of Miami Beach's registered voters. According to the poll, traffic congestion was by far the most important issue confronting the city. More specifically, 51 percent of respondents supported the construction of Bay Link and 28 percent opposed it, based on what they knew of the project. When asked whether the city commission should vote to "continue to study the light-rail system or not," a commanding 62 percent said yes while 29 percent said no. (If the commission on September 8 were to vote in favor of Bay Link, the city's only obligation would be to proceed with engineering and environmental studies. Should those reveal serious problems, the commission could still kill the project.)
Dermer was dismissive of the poll generally but quick to latch onto one particular question: "Which of the following ideas do you think would have the most positive impact on helping to solve transportation problems on Miami Beach: expanding the bus system to provide more routes, more frequent stops, and newer buses, or building a light-rail system linking Miami Beach and downtown Miami?" The results: 38 percent for expanded bus service and 35 percent for a light-rail system. (The remaining 27 percent, a substantial number, answered either none of the above, all of the above, don't know, or provided some other response.)
"The way I read the poll," Dermer says, "it was slanted to a pro-track approach. That being said, their own poll shows that if people are given a choice, they would go with the trackless [bus] approach."
Pollster Robert Schroth flatly rejects Dermer's interpretation. "The voters clearly support light rail," he reports. "The mayor is on the wrong side of this issue."
Mark Needle, who lives on South Beach and works as an educational specialist for Miami-Dade County Public Schools, is one of Bay Link's most ardent proponents. He joined the cause early on, shortly after then-Mayor Kasdin brought the idea of light rail before the Metropolitan Planning Organization. "Despite my frustration with Kasdin on other issues affecting growth and development in Miami Beach," Needle says, "I think Bay Link is a good plan."