The Fuss Over the Bus

For six months South Beach's ElectroWave shuttle service has been a hit. Its seven brightly painted, 22-seat electric buses have moved about 750,000 riders up and down the neighborhood's streets without spewing carbon monoxide or charging a fare.

Yet the system has not been flawless. It's pricey, costing $3.5 million in federal, state, and city money in its first year. According to a dispatcher's notes, "gang members, the maniacs, and the homeless" have annoyed drivers and passengers. An expensive unused park-and-ride lot and substitute diesel buses are further symptoms that kinks are still being worked out.

The free ride may soon be over. The Miami Beach City Commission wants to institute a fare to recoup some of the money it kicked in to start the shuttle. Mayor Neisen Kasdin and other commissioners have suggested 50 cents per rider. ("That would hardly offset the cost of operating it," sniffs Commissioner Martin Shapiro, who has opposed the ElectroWave concept from the start.) Most users would be willing to pay 25 cents, according to a survey conducted by the Miami Beach Transportation Management Association (MBTMA), the public/private agency that operates the buses. Before the city commission votes on a budget -- including an item to shell out $650,000 more for the ElectroWave -- on September 23, a fare proposal is almost certain to come up.

Until now funding has not been a serious problem. Unless the city commission cuts back, the shuttle's $1.2 million operating budget will remain the same next year. In addition, MBTMA has received $1.2 million in state and federal grants to buy four more buses. The additional vehicles will not be used to expand service but will be rotated into the existing schedule. (The buses circle the area between Alton Road and Washington Avenue, from Fifth to Seventeenth streets, from morning until 4:00 a.m. Thursday through Saturday and until 2:00 a.m. other days.)

Judy Evans, MBTMA executive director, originally sold the city on the idea of a free, nonpolluting bus three and a half years ago. It took three years to gather the public money to start it. Ridership, now steadily 32,000-35,000 per week, makes Evans optimistic about ElectroWave's future. So far, she says, MBTMA and city staff have done a good job of troubleshooting. "The city is ready for this," she comments. "It has worked."

Rambunctious riders have been a constant vexation. Evans says the service has experienced perhaps one significant onboard incident per month. On July 30, for instance, two men turned off the lights in the back of the bus and began making out. After arguing with the driver and police, they were busted for cocaine possession. Last spring one passenger allegedly hit another over the head with a coconut. "Gang members again enjoying our service," dispatcher Lucy Reyes noted March 25. "I think we need to discuss security measures."

The youth gangs that hang out on Washington Avenue at night and Miami Beach Senior High students riding after school still worry Evans. The Beach High kids have vandalized the buses and "have been rowdy, loud, grab-assing like kids do, just making it uncomfortable and unpleasant for the other riders," says Assistant Chief of Police James Scarberry. Thus ElectroWave drivers, who wear nonintimidating flamingo-print shirts, will soon be equipped with a panic button attached to a strobe light. "We're putting a strobe on top of each shuttle," Evans says. "This will signal police that a driver needs help."

Where will the panic button be installed? "I'm not telling you!" Evans exclaims, only half-joking. The strobes cost $300 each and are being added as buses are rotated into the shop for battery and air-conditioning upgrades. Now only one sports such a light.

Several diesel buses were used from May to early July because the electric vehicles needed repair or maintenance, Evans says. Drivers have been cited in three accidents, she adds. "We've pulled those [diesel vehicles] out of service," Evans says. "It's partly because I don't want to spend the money, but [they] defeat the purpose of having an electric shuttle." The environmentally not-so-great stint cost MBTMA $12,000.

Then there are two park-and-ride lots, including about 42 spaces that Evans acknowledges are rarely used. The lots are located at the southern terminus of the ElectroWave route behind the Burger King at Fifth Street and Alton. One belongs to Gateway Development Corporation; the city is paying $161,250 per year -- out of its own budget, not MBTMA's -- for this lot that few people even know exists. The other is city property, says parking director Jackie Gonzalez. Until mid-July the lots were free all the time. Now the city charges a five-dollar flat rate to park on Saturday night.

Evans plans to put up signs directing people to the obscure lots; right now, nothing guides MacArthur Causeway traffic their way. But adequately marking the lots will create another problem, as Mayor Kasdin points out: "If they were convenient to use and people wanted to use them, they would be totally inadequate."

Fortunately, Evans says, MBTMA has lined up more money that could help solve this quandary. A $1.5 million federal grant for 1999 and 2000 is earmarked for the construction of a terminal that will include an electric-charging station and another park-and-ride lot. No site has been chosen for this building.


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