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.

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Jim Mullin
Contact: Jim Mullin