When the City of Miami unveiled its highly anticipated trolley system two years ago this month, city officials were clearly satisfied with themselves. Mayor Tomás Regalado — who had championed the idea for years — grinned as he snipped the ribbon from the sleek orange-and-green machines in Mary Brickell Village. The rubber-tired trolleys were supposed to be a sign that Miami had traded smog and sprawl for smart urban planning. The Huffington Post gushed that Miami was the next San Francisco. The trolley system's motto: "Ditch the car and hitch a ride."
For many visually impaired Miamians, however, the new trolleys turned out to be a harrowing ride to the wrong part of town.
This week, city commissioners are expected to finally order upgrades to the trolleys 24 months after their much-publicized debut. The fixes are part of a legal agreement with Andres Gomez, a 26-year-old who claimed the trolleys violated the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).
Gomez was initially excited about the trolley system. When he was 18, the Coral Gables native was diagnosed with macular degeneration, a disease that gradually causes blindness. The trolleys promised an easy and free form of public transportation. But when Gomez got on one, he quickly realized something was missing.
"There were no stop announcements," he says. "I immediately got lost." When Gomez tried asking the trolley drivers for help getting off at his stop, many of them refused or were rude to him, he says. One time, Gomez tried to catch a trolley to Brickell from the Omni district. After a series of silent stops, another passenger reassured him that he had arrived in Brickell. But it was only after stepping off the trolley that Gomez realized he was in the middle of Overtown. At night.
"That was pretty scary," he remembers. "You know, when you are visually impaired, people see you in a bad neighborhood, they try to mug you. When you're disabled, you're always on guard. You've always got to think the worst."
Gomez escaped unharmed but swore to do something. He called the city's transportation department, which admitted the trolleys were supposed to have speakers and announcements.
"A lot of disabled people don't like to come out of the house because of stuff like this," he says. "They just give up." With the help of disability lawyer Matthew Dietz, Gomez sued the city.
Last month, the city belatedly agreed to add stop announcements at a cost of $8,000 per trolley. Limousines of South Florida, the private company that runs the trolleys, agreed to train its drivers to assist people with disabilities. Commissioners are expected to approve the deal this week.
Now Gomez is the one feeling satisfied. He says the lawsuit isn't about him, but it has left him feeling empowered.
"My girlfriend is proud of me," he says. "She tells me: 'Look, there are a lot of barriers you face, but they don't seem to stop you.'"