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Mud on the Tracks

A majority of Miami Beach residents, the city manager, a former mayor, and business owners and the commuters they employ all want to pursue an ambitious proposal to bring mass transit to the Beach. The plan calls for a modern electric trolley that would run on tracks, draw power from...
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A majority of Miami Beach residents, the city manager, a former mayor, and business owners and the commuters they employ all want to pursue an ambitious proposal to bring mass transit to the Beach. The plan calls for a modern electric trolley that would run on tracks, draw power from an overhead wire, and connect downtown Miami and Miami Beach via the MacArthur Causeway. Proponents say it will keep traffic -- and dollars -- flowing smoothly to the Beach.

This past May a respected polling firm conducted a survey of registered Beach voters that showed strong support for the project, called Bay Link. But if you listen to Miami Beach Mayor David Dermer, you might think the survey was bogus and that a light-rail trolley heading into his enclave amounts to the worst catastrophe for the Beach since bad-boy developer Thomas Kramer set foot on the island.

It was Kramer who waged a $1.5 million personal war against a 1997 ballot measure known as Save Miami Beach, which required public approval of any waterfront construction that sought an increase in the property's zoned density. Dermer, who vaulted to local prominence as a leader of the grassroots Save Miami Beach movement, fought back with a campaign dubbed "Kramer's Big Lie," which helped ensure passage of the referendum and killed a land-swap deal between Kramer and the city.

Now the mayor, who faces re-election in November and prides himself on being a populist hero, has targeted Bay Link, charging that voters are being hoodwinked by special interests who want to tear up city streets, walk away with lavish profits, and leave local residents with a traffic-congestion crisis the likes of which they've never seen. (Bay Link proponents, opponents, and an overwhelming majority of local residents agree that traffic congestion -- bad now and certain to get worse -- is the city's most pressing problem.)

Dermer's first display of unrepressed Bay Link outrage -- and a hint of things to come -- took place March 10, during a special meeting of the Miami Beach City Commission. By then the mayor and six commissioners already had been through phase one of the Bay Link proposal: a $1.5 million study, prepared by the consulting firm Parsons Brinckerhoff, that recommended light rail as the best mass-transit option for Miami Beach. Parsons endorsed an electric-train system that could carry up to 120 passengers at a time. The train would run along the center median of some of South Beach's main arteries, requiring the realignment of traffic lanes and the loss of a substantial number of on-street parking spaces. The report also included a possible route: from the MacArthur Causeway at Fifth Street north along Alton Road, then east on Seventeenth Street to Washington Avenue, south back to Fifth Street, and west to the causeway and Miami. (On the Miami side, the trolley would loop through downtown, utilizing Biscayne Boulevard for much of its route.)

In addition to receiving the Parsons study, city commissioners by March had attended numerous public hearings, and six of them (along with top city administrators) had taken a week-long tour of several West Coast cities with light-rail systems in place. The tour convinced city manager Jorge Gonzalez that a trolley system similar to Portland's was the best solution for Miami Beach. The electric trolley he urged upon city commissioners would be smaller than the Parsons train, would share traffic lanes with motorists, and would eliminate few if any curbside parking spots.

The March 10 meeting had been convened at the urging of Miami-Dade's Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), a transportation planning board whose membership consists of elected officials from throughout the county, including Miami Beach. MPO warned Beach elected officials that if they didn't vote soon to proceed with phase two -- preliminary engineering plans and a final environmental impact statement -- the federal government might divert its share of allotted funding to other mass-transit and public-works initiatives. The threat of losing the feds' contribution -- up to half of Bay Link's $400 million expected cost -- loomed large. Worse, MPO officials cautioned, it might be another six years before new federal transit funding would become available.

City hall was packed with both supporters and opponents of the plan, and the commission was ready to vote -- all except Dermer, that is, who was determined to put off a decision. He had two influential allies in attendance: Miami-Dade County Commissioner Bruno Barreiro, who supports expanding Metromover, the elevated monorail in downtown Miami; and Miami-Dade transit chief Danny Alvarez, who fears the Bay Link project will siphon off federal funding from the county's more costly Metrorail expansion plans. There was no need to rush to a vote, the two informed the commissioners, and no impending threat of lost funding, despite warnings from MPO officials.

But then Wilson Fernandez, MPO's specialist on Bay Link, took to the speaker's podium and contradicted Barreiro and Alvarez. "The project will not be eligible for a full funding agreement from the Federal Transit Administration unless you move on to the next phase," he said. "The longer you wait, the greater the possibility your window of opportunity will close."

Dermer, who favors increased use of bus services, would have none of it. "There is no time element here, sir!" he bellowed as he jabbed at the air with a pencil. Referring to Barreiro, he continued, "I've got a county commissioner coming in here, sick out of bed, to tell me the truth! What is that all about, sir? Who do you work for?" Delighted anti-Bay Link members of the audience cheered and applauded and Fernandez watched helplessly as Dermer rose from his seat. "We have been bamboozled here!" he raged. "And I am upset about this, as the mayor of Miami Beach!"

In the pandemonium that followed, several commission members backed off their readiness to cast a vote on phase two. Instead the commission decided to delay a decision until they could sort out the confusion. The MPO subsequently relented and gave Miami Beach until September 25 to make a decision about Bay Link.

At a cost of $160,000, the Beach in May hired its own consulting firm, Henningson, Durham and Richardson (HDR), to examine the study that had been prepared by Parsons, MPO's consultants. HDR concluded its work last month. At a July 10 commission workshop the firm reported that Miami Beach would be best served by an electric trolley system that would be lighter and less intrusive than the one originally proposed by MPO. Essentially HDR affirmed manager Gonzalez's earlier recommendation to the commission.

At a special meeting on Monday, September 8, the mayor and commissioners are expected to vote on Bay Link's fate. According to MPO's Fernandez, the commission vote will be decisive. "A no vote kills Bay Link," Fernandez says emphatically. "The MPO will then likely turn its attention to other transit projects in the county."

The stakes are exceedingly high, not only because of Bay Link's potential long-term impact on Miami Beach's traffic woes, and not only because hundreds of millions of dollars hang in the balance, but also because the city is in the heat of a political season. The trolley has emerged as the single most volatile issue leading up to a general election to be held November 4.

Mayor Dermer and commissioners Luis Garcia, Simon Cruz, and Matti Bower are up for re-election. Garcia and Cruz, avid Bay Link supporters, have already drawn challengers who oppose the project. Bower, who initially supported Bay Link, changed her mind after the March 10 meeting. She now opposes the project, and perhaps not coincidentally is not being challenged for her commission seat. Dermer is facing a novice challenger who poses no threat. The situation could change for both Dermer and Bower, however. The filing deadline does not expire until the end of the day Friday, September 5.

Cruz, as well as other advocates for Bay Link, maintains that much of David Dermer's fierce opposition is based not on the strengths or weaknesses of the project but rather on the fact that it was the brainchild of his predecessor and political rival Neisen Kasdin, who served as mayor from 1997 through 2001. "It's definitely a factor," says Cruz, "otherwise I have a difficult time understanding why he's so against it."

Kasdin himself believes that Dermer's objection to Bay Link is at least partly a result of the enduring animosity between the two men. "It's a clear element," he says, "but Bay Link is the single most important issue facing Miami Beach in the last 30 years. It would be criminal for petty politics to derail it."

During his final two years in office, Kasdin won MPO approval for the initial Bay Link study, which was completed in 2002. He also persuaded MPO to add Bay Link to the county's long-range transportation strategy, which became known as the People's Transportation Plan during the half-penny sales-tax campaign last year. (Adding the trolley project to the plan would allow it to benefit from the dedicated source of income generated by the tax.)

Kasdin, an attorney with the firm Gunster Yoakley, says he was first sold on the idea of a light-rail system following a presentation by the nonprofit Miami Beach Community Development Corporation that highlighted the Beach's streetcar system from the Twenties and Thirties. The old-fashioned streetcars fanned out from downtown Miami to Coral Gables and Miami Beach until 1939, when the arrival of diesel-powered buses pushed them aside.

In that 80-year-old system, along with the recent rebirth of light rail in cities like Sacramento and Portland, Kasdin saw a possible solution to Miami Beach's traffic congestion. "Light rail is the most progressive form of transit to be built in major cities in the last ten to fifteen years," he says. "One, it provides a better way for people to move around congested urban areas like Miami Beach. Two, light rail is environmentally friendlier than a bus. And three, light rail has rider acceptability. The reality is that buses are viewed as a transportation mode of last resort, but people are willing to give up their cars to ride light rail."

Just as important, he adds, a light-rail system will help maintain the city's economic vitality. Without viable mass transit, Miami Beach will choke in the congestion caused by expected new residential and commercial projects. Traffic volume on the MacArthur Causeway alone jumped 39 percent between 1990 and 2002, according to a recent Florida Department of Transportation report. By 2025 average daily traffic on the causeway could reach 74,379 cars, compared with 66,166 cars in 2000. "It is going to become more difficult for Miami Beach residents to get around," Kasdin predicts. "If that happens, the young urban professionals will say goodbye to the Beach and go to Miami, Coral Gables, and other communities where mass transit is welcome."

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."

Needle is also a long-time Dermer friend and political supporter. The two men worked closely together on the successful Save Miami Beach referendum. "David has taken the position that the populace is against Bay Link," he notes. "Unfortunately, he has misjudged the populace." (It wouldn't be the first time. In 1999 Dermer opposed a $92 million public-works city bond measure, claiming it was a boondoggle in the making. Voters overwhelmingly approved it.)

Along with several other South Beach residents, Needle helped to create a group called the Alliance for Reliable Transport, which acts as a watchdog over the county's mass-transit projects and is trying to correct the rampant misinformation about Bay Link being disseminated by opponents. Lost in all the rhetoric, Needle says, are insights to be gained from a closer reading of the May survey. Of those polled, the Bay Link proposal was favored by a majority of people in all age groups except those 50 to 64 years old, where it was a close 39 percent in favor, 43 percent opposed. Fully 63 percent of Hispanics supported the light-rail project. Geographically, 50 percent of those living in South Beach, 57 percent in Mid-Beach, and 45 percent in North Beach said they were in favor of Bay Link, and even in North Beach only 33 percent were definitely opposed. The most telling response, however, came near the end of the survey, after respondents had been provided more information about Bay Link and guided through arguments for and against the project. Question number 23: "Now that you've heard a little more about the issue, do you think the Commission should vote to continue the study of the light-rail system?" Yes: 63 percent. No: 31 percent. Don't know/refused: 6 percent.

But why examine numbers when you can listen to rumors, innuendo, and personal attacks? Needle himself has faced accusations that he's working on a more sinister agenda. "All these accusations, that it only serves special-interest groups, aren't true," he complains. "The hyperbolic assertions, the absurd objections, and the trashing of people who speak up for Bay Link are an effort to distract attention from the actual merits and the positive impact the project will have on our urban fabric."

While Needle says he doesn't expect the Bay Link debate to damage his friendship with Dermer, he does express dismay with the mayor's theatrics at the March 10 commission meeting and the manner in which he has addressed the issue since then. "He's reacting to politics and not the project," Needle says. "I think it was unnecessary to [create confusion], because he could have gotten the deferral, the consultant's study, and everything that has happened since March 10 by simply asking for it. He could have led the commission in that direction in a noble way. I was disappointed that he didn't choose to take the high road."

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