Token Ridership

It's that time again, when local politicians crank up the rhetoric, express their profound concern, promise the impossible. And regardless of whether they've officially declared their candidacies, Dade's mayoral hopefuls are at the vanguard, plumbing the depths of credibility with their pretty come-ons to potential voters. Among their talking points: public transportation. And boy do they have plans for our transit system! Two politicos -- Metro Commission Chairman Art Teele and Xavier Suarez, former mayor of Miami -- have vowed to ratchet back bus and rail fares from $1.25 per ride to an alarmingly low 50 cents.

Of course, this will never happen. There's barely enough money to pay for the system as it is: It operates at a deficit of slightly less than $89 million annually (which is offset by property taxes, plus a penny per gallon from the county's six-cent gas tax). Lowering the cost of a trip by 75 cents would cut revenues by more than $29.5 million, and there's no evidence that a fare reduction would attract enough new riders to make up the shortfall, even if it were linked with other incentives, such as free parking at Metrorail stations (which now costs two dollars per day) and free transfers (now 25 cents apiece).

Furthermore, drastic financial modifications would require a drastic shift in the mindset prevalent among our public officials, which until now has been dominated by a love affair with trains. Though there's a consensus that Metrorail and its downtown offspring Metromover are one of the biggest American transportation boondoggles of the Twentieth Century, county officials are making plans to spend vast sums to extend the rail in at least two directions. The victims of the generation-old obsession with rail: Dade's bus system and the passengers who depend on it. Amid all the banter about rail, there is precious little talk about buses. "Metrobus is the forgotten stepchild," goes the common refrain. Passengers say it. Drivers say it. Transportation economists say it. Even some county bureaucrats say it (softly). The bus system is understaffed, underfunded, undersupplied, and undermaintained. There aren't enough buses on the road to adequately serve the existing ridership and not enough mechanics to maintain the buses the county does have.

"We basically gutted our bus system -- existing and potential -- gutted public works and highway projects on which buses would run, in order to put together the Metrorail system," says Norman Wartman, a long-time transit activist who now chairs a Metro-Dade transportation advisory board. "We've been paying for it ever since."

Wartman and other bus boosters are in favor of a back-to-basics approach to public transportation in Dade. They emphasize that unlike trains, bus routes are flexible and can be adjusted as demand warrants. "The foundation of the transit system is the carpools, the buses, the jitneys," Wartman argues. "We need to have the base of the pyramid broadened. Because this county is 50 miles deep by 30 miles wide, a little teensy line on the map is not a cure-all."

T. Willard Fair, president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Miami, agrees, but he's skeptical about the ability of Dade's public leadership to see the light. "We have a tendency in this community to initiate public policy for the emotional image of the community," says Fair, citing as an example the recent scramble to build a new arena downtown. "And the development of our rapid-transit system fits into that image-as-public-policy making. We have this notion that if we're going to have a first-class, 21st-century city, we need these massive developments."

And in order to acquire them, Fair concludes, "we are willing to sell our soul."

From the archives of the Metro-Dade Transit Agency Complaint Department:
To Whom It May Concern:

I am a regular user of public transportation, exclusively buses. I depend on Metro-Dade bus transit to take me to and from work. I take the S route bus at the corner of Eleventh Street and Alton Road (in front of the First Union Bank), going downtown. The usual time I am there is 10:00 a.m. to 10:15 a.m. daily. The bus service at this hour is terrible to say the least. I am not alone in this opinion.

I have had to wait 30 minutes for buses. Other times buses pass by but do not bother stopping because they feel they are "full."... Friday, August 11, 1995, I got to the bus stop around 10:10 a.m. I had just missed the bus, because I saw it leaving that bus stop a minute before. After approximately fifteen minutes, an S bus passed without stopping, motioning that there was another bus behind. That bus was an F/M bus, which I do not use, therefore it was no use to me. About 30 minutes later, another S passed by. This driver wasn't taking any more passengers either.... However, the next S bus that passed around 11:00 a.m was bus #1158. Finally I was on my way to work, though I start at 10:30 a.m.

I feel it is ridiculous to spend more time waiting for a bus than actually riding it. Will the bus service improve?...

I do not know how to drive. I rely on Metro-Dade bus transit, though I wish I did not have to. I need to get to work and make a living. I really hope things improve for us bus transit users. Any advice?

Rose de la Cruz
If Metrobus is indeed the neglected stepchild of the Metro-Dade Transit Agency (MDTA), then Metrorail and Metromover are its overindulged siblings, show ponies to Metrobus's workhorse.

The numbers clearly delineate this unbalanced relationship:
Metrobus serves more than 201,000 one-way passengers each weekday; Metrorail and Metromover combined serve fewer than 65,000.

Metrobus routes cover a service area of 500 square miles; the rail systems stretch a paltry 23 miles.

In the past fiscal year, Metrobus boasted revenues of $52.1 million -- 73 percent of MDTA's total revenue; Metrorail and Metromover pulled in only $13.4 million, or 19 percent.

More significantly, Metrobus was able to recoup 42 cents of every dollar deposited into the farebox, one of the highest rates among U.S. public bus systems and far superior to the 24-cent return on every dollar expended at the turnstile for Metrorail and Metromover. (The so-called farebox recovery has never been higher than 27 cents per dollar for the rail system.)

Despite its greater utility and productivity, Metrobus splits local funding fairly equally with the rail systems. During the past fiscal year, for example, Metrobus received 47 percent ($47.5 million) of the property tax dollars allocated to the transit system, while the rail systems received 43 percent ($43.3 million).

Metrobus costs $1.97 to operate per one-way passenger. Metrorail costs $3.34 per passenger, Metromover $2.21. (In a 1994 study undertaken by transportation researchers at the University of South Florida, Dade County showed the highest operating expense per passenger trip among five metropolitan rail systems surveyed. Metrobus finished in the middle of the pack in a similar survey of seven bus systems.)

Metrorail didn't always seem like a bad idea. The notion of a rail system gained currency during the 1974 oil embargo and the attendant panic about the potential for three-dollar-a-gallon gas prices. Here and elsewhere, civic and government leaders began envisioning mass-transit alternatives to the automobile, and many hit on an elevated rail as a solution.

Predicting Metrorail would serve more than 250,000 one-way passenger trips daily by the mid-Eighties, the county's consultants recommended a 54-mile, 54-station plan, the first leg of which would run from Kendall to Hialeah. Academics believed the system was inappropriate for a sprawling megalopolis like Miami and was destined to flop. But the federal government agreed with the consultants and financed 80 percent of the approximately $1.2 billion construction costs. In 1984 the Kendall-to-Hialeah line opened -- and almost immediately became an embarrassment of national proportions.

Ignoring prevailing theory, designers did not build tracks along roads that already had a high volume of public transportation (and therefore a built-in ridership). Instead the route passed through low-density neighborhoods, went nowhere near major tourist attractions, and was badly integrated with the bus system, inspiring critics to lambaste it as a service designed for South Dade's middle class at the expense of the transit-dependent, urban-dwelling poor. Ridership figures fell far short of initial projections. The system became known as Metrofail.

Without the anticipated rail ridership to help defray costs, the county was forced to suck money away from the bus system. A promised augmentation of the bus fleet was delayed, and commissioners forged ahead with the next rail stage: Metromover.

After the downtown loop was completed in 1986, Metrorail ridership figures increased by fewer than 10,000 trips per year A at a price of an additional six million dollars per year in operational costs. (Simultaneously, bus ridership decreased by nearly 5000 trips annually.) Still, at the beginning of this decade, when the time came to build the Metromover's extensions to the Omni and Brickell, there was again little hesitation.

Among the plan's critics, however, was the transit workers' union, whose leaders argued that the money should go toward beefing up the bus system. "I think too much priority was placed on [the Metromover]," complains Eddie Talley, president of Transport Workers Union Local 291. "During the time money was allocated to the new legs, we tried to get the county to use the money to double the bus fleet as they had promised. Instead we have an expanded Metromover downtown that turned out to be a detriment to the bus system."

That vaunted bus-system augmentation never did come to be. Today the county has an operating fleet of about 600 buses, "essentially the same" number in use when Metrorail opened in 1984, according to Vernon Clarke, general superintendent of the MDTA's bus operations division. Moreover, Clarke says, at any given time about 120 of those buses are in the shop for repairs. "During the peak hours, we need to have approximately 480 to 490 buses on the road," Talley notes. "We're scraping the bottom of the barrel to get that."

The size of the fleet certainly hasn't kept pace with Dade's population, which has grown by fifteen percent since 1984. A maintenance facility built in the early Eighties to house 1500 buses has been abandoned by MDTA and is now leased to the school system for one dollar a year.

Fewer buses serving a larger and more widespread population means less-frequent service, a common complaint among riders. A 1994 MDTA report summarizing that year's schedule illuminates the problem: During peak hours, buses on no more than 26 of 72 routes ran at fifteen-minute intervals or better. On about half the routes, passengers couldn't hope for more than one bus every half an hour. Of those, at least eighteen routes required a wait of up to an hour or more. The figures haven't improved significantly since then. (By comparison, Metrorail trains run no more than twenty minutes apart -- there's a train every seven minutes during morning and afternoon rush hours -- and Metromover cars come at six-minute intervals.)

The skeletal condition of the bus system is a bane to those who most need public transportation. According to another 1994 MDTA survey, about half of all Metrobus riders are unemployed, with about two-thirds reporting annual household incomes of less than $20,000. Nearly 80 percent said the main reason they rode the bus was that they had no car or didn't drive. Metrorail passengers, on the other hand, are a comfortable lot: According to the same survey, nearly one-third have household incomes of $40,000 or more. The vast majority cited traffic congestion and parking problems as their reasons for riding the rail.

Even worse, with the advent of Metrorail a far greater percent of bus routes were eliminated from low-income neighborhoods than from high-income ones. As part of his college senior thesis, Kendall native and Harvard economics student Eric Nierenberg compared bus maps from 1983 (pre-Metrorail) and 1995 (post-Metrorail) and calculated the number of bus routes passing through each of Dade's census tracts. Census tracts with a median household income of less than $10,000 suffered a loss in bus service of more than 50 percent, Nierenberg found, while tracts with median household incomes of greater than $40,000 experienced only a 13.2 percent decrease.

Though Nierenberg counted only bus routes and not the actual number of buses per census tract, he says that a preliminary analysis of about a quarter of the tracts revealed that the reduction in actual frequency was even greater in the lower-income areas. "When they introduced Metrorail, they cut back on bus service partly because they thought they'd eliminate overlap [with Metrorail] and partly to prevent ballooning costs," Nierenberg says. "But the majority of service they cut was in lower-income areas. They built a system that's supposed to help poor people but it actually penalized poor people."

Roosevelt Bradley, MDTA's new assistant director of bus operations and maintenance, hasn't studied the socioeconomic impact of bus cuts and therefore can't comment on Nierenberg's findings. But Bradley says that no matter where he goes in Dade -- whether to wealthy neighborhoods or poor ones -- residents complain that there aren't enough buses. "The public is definitely screaming for more service, and more service means to provide more buses," he acknowledges, putting the ideal number of buses at somewhere between 800 and 1000.

Unfortunately, say Bradley and his boss, MDTA Director Chester "Ed" Colby, there just isn't any money for such a purchase. "We're not expanding anything," confirms Colby. "We haven't had a budget that's had money in it for a long time."

In spite of Metrorail's less-than-stellar public reception, the two most ambitious transit-improvement projects now under way in Dade -- meant to unclog two congested roadways, State Road 836 and NW 27th Avenue -- are rail-centered. Though both are still in the study phase, buses are an afterthought, if a thought at all.

The State Road 836 study, commonly known as the East-West Corridor Project, is aimed at relieving the gridlock along the Dolphin Expressway, which runs from I-95 to Florida's Turnpike. It calls for carpool lanes, an expressway link between 836 and State Road 112 to the north, and a multimodal transportation station east of Miami International Airport. The project's primary component is an elevated Metrorail track to run from the Palmetto Expressway to the Port of Miami.

And the bus? Kouroche Mohandes, a Florida Department of Transportation engineer who is coordinating the project, says that if the rail is built, planners would reconfigure the bus system to provide feeder service. There has also been talk of sending express buses along the carpool lanes before the rail is finished. The entire project is expected to cost about $2.5 billion.

Transit maven Norman Wartman is looking for more immediate attention. He proposes constructing bus-only lanes along the Turnpike between Kendall Drive and NW 41st Street, and on State Road 836 between the Turnpike and Le Jeune Road. He says there's plenty of room either in the median or along the roadside to build the special lanes. "We could do it cheap as mud and for a fraction of the cost of one mile of rail," Wartman declares. Until the rail is built, the bus routes could help to develop a transit ridership. When the rail is built, they would feed the system at a station planned for the intersection of the Palmetto and SR 836. Wartman has introduced the idea to planners. "They said they'd 'think about it,'" he scoffs.

The second big transit project is the North Corridor Transit Study, intended to unclog the 27th Avenue artery. Commissioners have narrowed the possible designs to three. Two involve building an elevated Metrorail extension up NW 27th Avenue to 215th Street, with offshoot extensions to Joe Robbie Stadium and Miami-Dade Community College's North Campus. The third involves the construction of a reversible bus lane. The county is awaiting funds to pay for an environmental impact statement for the study. Planners, as well as several county commissioners -- particularly Art Teele and Betty Ferguson -- are gung-ho about the rail. Preliminary studies have concluded that the rail is half as cost-effective as the bus but will attract five to six times more new riders.

There are detractors (among them a commissioner or two) who say it looks like another enormous waste of money. One county consultant has estimated that a Metrorail extension up NW 27th Avenue will increase rail ridership by about 23,000 trips per day but will encourage only about 4800 new public-transportation riders. The line's estimated cost: between $453 million and $463 million, depending on its placement. Using a formula that figures annualized capital costs, planners estimate that the system will cost between $17.80 and $18.22 per new rider. (A busway wouldn't be much rosier: It is estimated to attract only about 800 new transit riders per day, although at a far more cost-efficient rate of $9.23 per new passenger.)

The north corridor Metrorail leg might be an economically worthwhile option, critics say, if it were to hook into Broward's transportation system. One proposal is to run the extension up to the Broward Mall at the intersection of University Drive and Broward Boulevard. But already the Plantation City Council has passed a resolution opposing a railroad track running through their city to the mall.

Proponents say the rail has no chance of becoming profitable until it's fully complete, that our investments in this century will pay off in the next. It's an argument that taxes the patience of Miami attorney Richard Friedman, who led a citizens' fight against the construction of Metrorail. "That big lie has been perpetuated in all the writings of MDTA," Friedman complains. "They used the same argument [to expand] the Metromover. At one point they said, 'We only have half the Metromover, so unless we complete it we won't be able to attract all these people who are going to jump on the Metrorail.'"

Even Commission Chairman Art Teele, who supports both corridor projects, decries the inadequacies of Metrobus. "It's horrible!" he exclaims. "I don't think we need to build another inch on this rail system until we rationalize and make sense of our bus system. The problem is, what can you do? When you have a troubled company, it's hard without money to solve the problems. It's like pulling up a blanket that's too small for the bed. Something's going to be uncovered."

There's no guarantee, Teele adds, that any of the extensions will ever be built. "Dade County is as far back in the queue to get federal transportation dollars as Butte, Montana, is to get FBI agents," he says.

Federal and state assistance has been drying up in recent years, explains Danny Alvarez, MDTA deputy director for administration, with federal operating subsidies for MDTA dropping in the past decade from about $18 million to about $7 million. Dade is still without a local funding source solely earmarked for public transportation -- a dedicated revenue source that would vastly improve the county's chances of winning matching federal funds. Voters have twice rejected efforts to create a special transit sales tax, in 1990 and again in 1991.

Wartman says it's unlikely the public is going to look kindly on another attempt in the near future. "It's going to take a massive increase in the faith of the population, and that's only going to be done when they see us move a lot of people at a reasonable cost," he says. "If you have someone you've given money to, and they've gone and blown that money, are you going to give them money later? Because of the mistakes of the past, we're screwed now."

A total of 1084 people work as Metrobus operators. The majority are black (713) and male (913). They make good wages, ranging from a rookie rate of $7.28 per hour to a veteran's top scale of $15.98. On top of that, they have the opportunity to work a lot of overtime.

"This is one of the few places that a minority can come in and get a decent-paying job and not have educational requirements. But don't let the rates fool you," cautions Eddie Talley, who was hired as a bus operator in 1966, and continued driving even after becoming full-time union president in 1989. According to Talley, Metrobus operators work for fifteen to twenty years -- and die an average of three years after they retire. None has lived more than ten years after turning in his keys.

"The doors open up and the driver gets the brunt of all the negatives out there in the street, not to mention all the bad traffic, people bringing all their bad driving habits from other countries," Talley carps. "And we're expected to maintain our schedule out there!"

One of the first black drivers hired by Dade County, Franklin Jenkins ranks as MDTA's senior driver, with 34 years behind the wheel. The key to his longevity? "I try not to get upset," he ventures. "You hear things from passengers and you just have to let it go. If cars cut you off, you don't let it bother you. It's nerve-racking and everything else."

Richard Roberts was hired as an operator in 1963, a year and a half after Jenkins. "It's more stressful now than when I started," says Roberts, an avuncular man who favors tinted bifocals and a goatee. Like Jenkins, Roberts is slender, a rarity among Dade's beefy bus corps. "The traffic is a lot worse and the passengers are a lot worse," he explains. "Back then if you asked somebody to do something, they usually did it. Now if you ask somebody to do something, they tell you where to go. You learn over the years that you need to laugh it off, not get uptight. If you do, you end up retaliating."

Indeed, Metrobus headquarters receives plenty of complaints about rude or dangerous drivers, and about operators who have bypassed waiting passengers. (It's not uncommon in Dade to hear out-of-town riders marvel at the antics required to flag down a bus; some drivers seem only to stop for the equivalent of a full-bore cheerleading maneuver.)

Conceding that there are "some bad apples," Roosevelt Bradley says he is instituting more training in customer relations and in the provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act. But he and other upper-level managers say behavior is much better than it has been in the past.

Good things, too, have been known to happen. Richard Roberts remembers especially clearly an attractive hospital worker who used to regularly ride his bus home. They're now married.

Bus supporters have some cause to rejoice -- or at least to be cautiously optimistic. The state is nearing completion of an eight-mile busway that will run along South Dixie Highway from Cutler Ridge to Kendall Drive. (Cost: $6 million per mile, versus Metrorail's cost of $57 million per mile.) Transit officials hope to extend that busway all the way down to Florida City within a few years. Plans are also afoot to develop routes for smaller buses to circulate through neighborhoods and feed the major arteries and the rail, a project designed to challenge jitneys, privately owned vans that have cropped up in recent years to fill the holes in the bus system. (According to MDTA, jitneys have sucked an estimated six million dollars per year in revenues away from the county.)

In another recent development that may reflect a change in transit prejudices, the Metropolitan Planning Organization, a county transportation board composed mainly of Metro commissioners, recently authorized a thorough review of Tri-Rail. The vote was requested by members of an appointed citizens' advisory group that wondered whether the rail should be left as is, modified, or eliminated. The group pointed out that while Tri-Rail staff has doubled, ridership has dropped. Weekday riders have decreased from about 8500 (February 1995) to about 7000 (February 1996). Fare revenue is only about $5.4 million, a fraction of the $70 million annual subsidy. By the group's calculations, Tri-Rail is being subsidized to the annual tune of more than $17,500 per passenger. (Most of the operational cost of the Tri-Rail is provided by the state; Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties kick in about one million dollars each.) In outlining their concerns, the citizens' group asked whether an express-bus service could better serve the commuting population.

Making reference to the vote to review Tri-Rail, Metro Commissioner Alex Penelas says he'd like to review the entire transit system, with an eye toward perhaps turning over Metrorail to a private contractor.

Among MDTA bus personnel, a modicum of hopefulness has been brought about by a recent change in administration. This past January, when Ed Colby appointed Roosevelt Bradley as assistant director of bus operations, he also tapped Bradley's boss, Carlos Bonzon, for the post of deputy director of bus and train operations. While neither has been in the job long enough to prove his worth, management's traditional adversaries are hopeful. Union president Eddie Talley says Bradley has already presented some "creative and innovative plans" for improving the system. As for Bonzon, who is the former director of Dade's Building and Zoning Department, Talley says, "He strikes me as someone who has a genuine interest in the bus part and the whole industry."

A ten-year veteran of the transit system, Bradley recognizes he's walking into a potential snake pit. ("I don't think an assistant director of bus has ever survived," notes Colby, the man who appointed him.) It doesn't help Bradley that he had never worked in bus operations: Aside from a year-long stint with Metrobus on special assignment, he spent his decade of service on the rail side. That fact frustrates some of his staffers. "We're going through another education process educating our boss," sighs a frustrated Vernon Clarke, general superintendent of bus operations and a 30-year veteran of the bus system. "It's not the first time."

Bradley is trying to make his mark early: In May he produced a comprehensive 90-day report detailing the ills of the system, ranging from poor communication between management and the labor unions to roach infestation as a result of irregular exterminations. "I'm basically trying to hold people more accountable for their responsibilities," he declares.

He faces a trial by fire, literally. Summer is here, and with it comes an increase in bus breakdowns. Bradlely has been devising a plan to deal with the problem. "You know the saying, the proof is in the pudding?" asks Talley. "We will be into the pudding by June, and we will see what Mr. Bradley and Dr. Bonzon are made of."

Right now they don't have much to work with. MDTA has 77 buses on order from the Flxible bus company, but the firm is in dire financial straits and has stopped manufacturing new vehicles. Regardless, those buses were meant to replace the oldest ones in the county's fleet, which date back to 1980. Under federal guidelines, they are overdue for the junk pile.

Ancient buses mean even more breakdowns. This past year, Metrobus suffered 10,344 breakdowns ("roadcalls," in bus parlance, which could mean anything from engine failure to a malfunctioning rearview mirror) A an average of about 28 per day. According to an MDTA review of six U.S. metro areas (Atlanta, Baltimore, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Portland, and Dade) the county's buses broke down more frequently than every other fleet except Pittsburgh's.

It isn't necessarily the oldest buses that are giving mechanics the biggest headaches. The newest vehicles, those extra-long, articulated craft, have been nothing less than a nightmare. For one thing, they are equipped with fancy new computers that mechanics aren't trained to fix. They are also plagued by serious glitches in the air conditioning systems that have rendered them useless in Miami's forbidding heat. "My biggest problem has been how can I maintain my oddball equipment with unqualified personnel?" mutters Archie Saunders, assistant general superintendent of maintenance. "This new equipment has had problem after problem, and most of my staff hasn't had any normal training."

In the past, normal training meant a six-month training course. Budget cuts have eliminated the program. What's more, Metrobus lost many of its most experienced mechanics a few years ago; they jumped over to Metromover for the promise of higher wages. "We hired a lot of new mechanics in a hurry," Saunders says. "They went basically from filling out the application right into the shop. They didn't know the front of the bus from the back. Some of them still don't."

As a result of the bus shortage, Dade has had to withdraw its promise to loan 77 buses to the Olympic Games in Atlanta this summer; the county will be one of only a handful of Midwestern and Eastern communities not chipping in any buses for the Olympics.

Vernon Clarke says that even without a specific tax earmarked for transit -- a dedicated funding source -- there's plenty MDTA management can do to improve bus service. "We don't need a dedicated source of funding," he grumbles. "I think we're using it as an excuse." Clarke argues that if upper management, the Dade County Manager's Office, and Metro commissioners were to focus more intensely on bus operations, service and efficiency could be improved 20 to 25 percent simply by redirecting routes, coordinating bus schedules, and generally tightening things up.

"We need a totally independent review of the system," he says. "Someone who won't pull their punches needs to come and take a look at it. Looking at it universally, I know the rail could be a good component. But it really frosts us in bus operations and maintenance to see all the emphasis on rail. We're going for pie in the sky when we don't have our feet on the ground. This whole operation is on the verge of collapse."

As the days wound down before the county manager released his proposed budget this past month, there was apprehension among bus personnel about the hits their system might take. Staff layoffs? Route curtailments? But in the end, County Manager Armando Vidal proposed to leave the bus system alone. He did, however, request that the Bicentennial Park Metromover station be shut down owing to low ridership.

The news elicited smiles at Metrobus headquarters.

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