Metrorail Finally Reaches MIA, but Getting to South Beach Is Still No Easy Task

Miami's leaders aren't exactly humble about the Orange Line, the half-billion-dollar project that, after three decades, finally connected Metrorail to the city's airport this past July 28. Just ask County Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who says the 2.4 miles of track now make Miami "one of the great cities."

In a town where public transit ranks somewhere on the priority list between removing illegal chickens and giving pro sports teams free stadiums, any improvement is worth a back-patting. But before we bulldoze the pyramids at Giza to make room for Metrorail as a Wonder of the World, let's take a deep breath.

"This is one of the most exciting things to happen to this city in a long time," says Matthew Toro of the Bicycle/Pedestrian Advisory Committee. "But that it's only coming now highlights a series of serious shortfalls. That we've had opportunities but failed to connect parts of the city with public transportation is the great tragedy of the system."

After all, when Metrorail opened in 1984 with ten stops in the city, many hoped it was a matter of time before rail linked everyone from Miami Beach to the Everglades. Nearly two decades later, in 2002, then-County Mayor Carlos Alvarez finally secured federal funds for BayLink, a light-rail system to the Beach. The project imploded, though, when local funds couldn't be marshaled.

Today, Metrorail reaches the airport but still can't take newly arrived tourists to any part of town worth a visit. Marlins Park and Little Havana? Stranded. The Wynwood Arts District? Nope. South Beach? For train riders, it might as well be Cuba.

So even with the Orange Line up and running, how difficult is it for the average tourist to get from the airport to SoBe? We devised an experiment to find out. I would go to Miami International Airport dressed as a bewildered Canadian tourist — clad, naturally, in boots and a winter coat — to pose a simple question: "How do I get to South Beach?"

The results were harrowing. Here's what happened:

Fresh off the plane from Toronto, I started at the currency exchange. The agent told me to go downstairs and take a bus that comes nowhere near the airport. Easy! As helpful as the agent was, he refused to change my Canadian cash. "Canada?" he said. "No, sir." (In his defense, my four-dollar bill drawn in pen on loose-leaf paper was an obvious counterfeit; everyone knows Gordie Howe is really on the nine.)

Before I could get to the escalator, though, a middle-aged man sitting at the sushi bar next to the exchange waved me over. "You're talking about the new train, but I don't know that it is running," he warned. He said I couldn't count on the transit people and that I should go upstairs to the train, not the bus.

With that caveat in mind, I tried to find the elevators, speaking on the way with a lovable old sot waiting for his flight back to London. He suggested I find a "sky rocket" to South Beach. (British for airplane?)

A Brookstone saleswoman told me her remote control hovercraft wouldn't be able to get me to Washington Avenue. Four Canadian dollars also wasn't enough to persuade a cleaning lady to push me to my destination on her cart. Dejected, I moped over to two gray-haired gents manning a cruise line counter. Maybe a boat was my best option?

"Yeah, it would be easier," one of the men agreed. Like much of the city, he noted, the Port of Miami is unreachable by train.

I'd heard enough people along my walk recommend a bus to South Beach that I decided to follow signs to the bus terminal. Alongside a vacant dog park — oddly, one of the few airport facilities not to smell of urine — stood a low building that seemed to slouch in despair. At one time, it was served by seven bus lines; with the new rail extension, only one now sulks into the station.

I sat on a bench to replenish my electrolytes the Canadian way: with a thick slug of maple syrup straight from the bottle. I offered a sip to a kindly Colombian woman. "No, too much sugar," she said in Spanish. I nodded vigorously, for I'd had too much sugar.

She told me there were two buses I could take — the J and the 150 — but neither came to the airport anymore. I'd have to take a tram to a new station, she said, pointing me in the same direction where I'd started.

At the airport outpost of Café Versailles, a customer overheard me struggling for directions to this tram. He walked me outside and pointed back across the airport to a slanted lattice of colored windows. Behind there, he told me, was a tram to the rental car center. From there, I could get to South Beach.

The rental car center was the first phase of the new Miami Intermodal Center — the $1.7 billion project that will eventually connect all of the airport's modes of transit. Inside, I hopped on a new tram, somewhat like the downtown Metromover except no one was asleep in the corner and the car never felt ready to jump the tracks.

As I exited, I saw it: a sign directing me toward buses and trains! But for Gretzky's sake! The way was blocked by a table filled with cheeses and complicated-looking crackers. Heavily armored police were poorly hidden behind clusters of orange balloons. A Latin jazz band was setting up.

Near the turnstiles for the new train extension, a man leaned on his luggage cart. I asked him when the next train to South Beach was leaving. "It's not going to leave until one of these guys cuts the ribbon," he said.

Sure enough, we had stumbled upon Mayor Gimenez's Orange Line opening ceremony. At some point as Gimenez spoke, the man with the luggage cart gave up. "I'm just going to rent a car," he spat.

When the speeches wrapped and the first car finally arrived, I sneaked aboard. At last, to South Beach! I cozied up to the mayor for the inaugural voyage. The new train, he said, would "diversify our economy and bring more opportunity to the city."

The ride to Government Center downtown took 24 minutes 22 seconds without any stops — leading me to question whether the train can actually make it to Dadeland South in just over 30 minutes, as several transit workers claimed. The trip wasn't quite long enough to necessitate sleeper cars, but also wasn't faster than many buses running from Metrorail stations to the airport.

Mayor Gimenez told me that though he frequently rides the Metromover, he has never taken public transportation to South Beach. He estimated the trip would probably "take a long time."

We blew past platforms full of people (the inaugural train wasn't interested in stopping), and when we reached Government Center, the doors briefly opened and then shut before the train took us straight back to the airport. On the way, more would-be passengers threw their hands up in frustration as we rocketed past.

When the train stopped, we were right back where we'd started. Holy Mounties! We were no closer to South Beach after all. Gimenez acknowledged his frustration at my dilemma. "I'd love to connect downtown to denser areas," he said with an easy smile. "To Miami Beach, to Aventura. To go down the spine of Dade County."

After the mayor wandered off, John, a 15-year-old who attended the affair, was less impressed. "They should have built the train to the airport 30 years ago," he said. "This is nothing to be proud of."

As the ribbon-cutting crowd thinned out, a saint of a transit worker guided me off the platform and to the stairs leading to a new bus bay. There, two beautiful young women stood holding a map.

"I see you have a map," I said. "Do you know how to get to South Beach?"

"You take this bus," one of them said, looking lovelier by the second.

"How did you find your way to the bus?" I asked. "It's taken me hours."

An official had been there to direct them; if it weren't for him, they said, there was no way they would have ever found it. Soon, sure enough, a 150 bus glided into the station. A few minutes later, while cruising along roads that didn't take 30 years to build or cost half a billion dollars, we made a stop at the Earlington Heights Metrorail station. From there, we continued to the Beach. It was a pleasant trip, and the bus left me at 14th Street and Washington Avenue.

After a full day of traveling, I was eager to cool down the best way one can in South Beach: inside Mac's Club Deuce, where Olympic women's volleyball was on the box and the buybacks came fast and strong.

If I'd had an extra half-billion dollars in my pocket, I would have built a train line straight to the Deuce so everyone landing at MIA could know the cleansing joy I felt when that first 7 and 7 chilled my palm.

On second thought, if I'd had an extra half-billion dollars, I probably would have taken a cab.

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Benjy Caplan