If you're on the bus, it probably means you're poor and powerless
If you're on the bus, it probably means you're poor and powerless
Steve Satterwhite


Had the penny tax for transportation passed two weeks ago, the owners of construction companies and engineering firms (and their lobbyists) wouldn't have been the only folks gleefully anticipating a twenty-year feast of riches. Reporters all over town would have raised a toast as well.

In fact, as the election neared, I began referring to the tax referendum as the Journalists Full-Employment Act. Just imagine the manpower required to track $240 million per year being doled out for transportation projects and another $100 million for who knows what: politically connected arts groups, campaign machines disguised as economic-development corporations, cousin Julio's job-training academy.

But the darn thing went down in flames. Pity. I was already gearing up to investigate a stupendously expensive plan to dig a tunnel from the Orange Bowl under the Miami River, under downtown Miami, under Biscayne Bay, and popping out at the cruise-ship terminals on Dodge Island. That particular project reeked of backroom political machinations.

As many others have noted, though, it's time to move on -- not on to another subject but on to a more comprehensive debate about possible solutions to the gridlock that surely looms ahead. And if we're going to launch into a new dialogue about transportation and our willingness to levy taxes to pay for improvements, it makes sense to examine what we already have.

What we already have is a significant number of people who use public transportation. The Miami-Dade Transit Agency, which operates the county's Metrorail and bus systems, recently reported ridership numbers that figured prominently in arguments preceding the penny-tax vote. The bus system recorded 210,000 daily boardings while, during the same period, Metrorail showed only 47,000. No comparison.

The failed tax proposal would have funneled some money to the county's bus network, but only a puny amount in comparison with what was to have been allotted for Metrorail expansion. Leading up to the vote, many commentators pointed to that discrepancy and wondered why the proposed spending should be so lopsided.

I think I know the answer to that question, and it has little to do with transportation logistics or traffic-flow patterns. To understand why current (and future) bus riders would have been woefully shortchanged had the penny tax passed, just look at their plight today. Miami-Dade County and its transit agency treat bus riders with a lack of respect that borders on contempt.

For decades the people who ride buses have been considered a marginal constituency at best, and finding money to meet their needs has been assigned a very low priority. This deeply ingrained institutional prejudice against them is most glaringly obvious in the lack of investment in the system's infrastructure: far too few vehicles resulting in interminable waits at bus stops; an aging fleet prone to breaking down and compounding passenger frustration with inexcusable delays; bus stops so foul they should be considered health hazards. (Following a young boy's tragic death last year at a bus shelter, at least the threat of lethal electrocution has eased somewhat.)

The two Biscayne Boulevard bus stops closest to our office are emblematic. The open-air stop across the street is a place of disgusting filth. It consists of two dirty benches sitting amid weeds in a sea of garbage, despite the nearby presence of a trash receptacle provided by the City of Miami. The other is equipped with a shelter, though that's not a term I'd use. It is hardly a welcoming place, frequently marred by graffiti and wind-blown litter and surrounded by concrete so caked with old chewing gum the sidewalk looks like a leopard-skin print. Bus passengers who opt to use the shelter often must share it with working prostitutes and transients for whom it serves as a makeshift way station. In three years I have never seen anyone from Miami-Dade Transit clean them.

According to the transit agency, the bus system maintains 8180 individual stops. But only 1035 (12.6 percent) of those feature shelters. At all others (including the heavily used transfer hub at the Mall at 163rd Street) passengers are left to contend with blistering sun and drenching rain. Many stops don't even offer a simple bench on which to sit.

Given these exceedingly adverse conditions, plus the mind-numbing waits entailed in getting from point A to point B, it's a miracle anyone at all would choose to go anywhere by bus. But then, bus riders are largely a captive audience of people who can't afford automobiles. They have little choice. They are Miami's underclass. And they are virtually powerless to effect meaningful change because the political bureaucracy that controls their mobility can ignore them with impunity. And it has done so for many years.

Having fostered a tradition of arrogance toward the very people who rely on public transportation, county bureaucrats shouldn't have been surprised that voters were skeptical about their overnight conversion to the gospel of mass transit as civic savior.

Not all municipal governments, however, force their poorest citizens to suffer such transportation indignities. In fact I'm familiar with a very large city with a very poor population that nonetheless manages to provide a bus system that puts Miami-Dade's to shame. That city is Tijuana, Mexico.

A bustling border metropolis with a tawdry reputation, Tijuana is home to countless thousands of immigrants from all over Latin America, much like Greater Miami. Also like Miami it sprawls for miles and miles, unregulated development having created a nearly incomprehensible maze of neighborhoods and minicities within the city. Perhaps wisely, the local government long ago realized it didn't have the resources to provide adequate transportation services to a population that is now estimated at two million.

Instead private bus companies arranged with the government to compete for routes. While this is not the place and I am not the person qualified to explain the nature of those arrangements, I can say the results have been impressive.

Some years ago I spent more than a week exploring Tijuana's bus system, riding for hours each day, all around the city center, up and down the river valley, throughout the surrounding hills. It was fascinating to behold a seemingly chaotic system that in fact was well organized and somehow managed to accommodate all, regardless of where they lived. No one, it seemed, had to walk more than a couple of blocks to the nearest bus route, even in the most remote outskirts.

As in many Latin cities, the buses in Tijuana reflected the pride and personalities of their operators, who lavishly decorated them, greeted passengers personally, picked them up or dropped them off wherever they wanted along the route, and happily made change for the fare (at that time a modest 15 cents). In short it was a system that worked. Many tens of thousands of people were able to get to their destinations each day, and they did so in an efficient manner unmatched by a Miami-Dade government with a million times more resources than Tijuana.

Of course, it's unlikely the Tijuana model could be replicated here, but that's not the point. The point is that Tijuana's ordinary citizens, poor though they may be, were provided with an effective if labyrinthine mass-transit operation. They responded by embracing it and making it financially viable.

Imagine for a moment what type of ground-transportation system we might have in Miami if the people who relied on it over the past twenty years or so consisted mostly of prosperous, politically influential, white-collar executives from Deering Estates, Pinecrest, Coral Gables, Key Biscayne, and Aventura.

By now we'd have a vast fleet of well-appointed, electric-powered minivans quietly cruising suburban streets to pick up passengers at their driveways and whisk them to one of the county's many hundreds of spacious, clean, climate-controlled transfer stations.

There luxury coaches would pull up every ten minutes. Smoke-belching, ear-rupturing diesel monsters having been abandoned a generation ago, these sleek machines would run on a combination of electricity and environmentally friendly fuels. Passengers would slip comfortably into first-class airline seats complete with satellite television and Internet access, while a gracious cabin crew provided refreshment service.

Upon their arrival at Dadeland or downtown or Doral, passengers would disembark into gleaming modern terminals where they would have the option of walking to work or hopping aboard a constantly flowing river of electric jitneys that would make office stops on demand.

The system would operate seven days a week, 24 hours a day, and offer late-night call-for-service options in outlying areas. Maintenance crews would keep terminals and vehicles spotless while an army of security guards would be deployed around the clock at every single transfer station.

Major thoroughfares would have been converted to restricted coachways as private autos were relegated to side streets. The expressways -- I-95, Palmetto, Dolphin, Shula, and Gratigny -- would include 24-hour HOV lanes for the exclusive use of express coaches. Tens of thousands of family gas-guzzlers would have been replaced by electric runabouts for local errands. And Miami would be the envy of the world.

Last month's crushing defeat of the penny tax carried with it a hopeful message: Most people agree that traffic congestion is horrendous and something must be done to fix it. Because public transportation undoubtedly will play some role in solving the problem, local officials would do well to consider the value of dramatically improving the system we already have. If they could do that, and do it convincingly, they just might gain some of the public trust that will be needed to do much more.

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