Miami Herald: Rail link between Miami, Miami Beach likely to be private-public affair

Posted on July 8, 2014

By Glenn Garvin

It won’t be cheap, maybe not pretty, and there’s no money available to pay for it right now, local officials backing a passenger rail link between Miami and Miami Beach were warned Tuesday. But they remained confident that private enterprise will come riding to the rescue.

“There’s a lot of creativity out there in the private sector!” proclaimed Miami-Dade County Commissioner Bruno Barreiro. “To me, it’s a private deal,” agreed Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine.

Their chipper declarations of optimism came at a meeting of the Metropolitan Planning Organization executive committee that’s been pondering a revival of Bay Link, a long dormant proposal for a light-rail line running along the MacArthur Causeway.

The idea, born in the late 1990s only to die in its crib in 2004 of acute cash shortage, has sputtered back to life with strong support from Levine, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez and other local leaders.

On Wednesday, the committee heard from a team of consultants it has retained to study the idea. The consultants, while generally agreeing the line is feasible, sounded a symphony of cautionary notes about everything from funding to aesthetic expectations.

Bay Link, they said, would have not only too few riders to support itself (public transit systems around the country cover only about 39 percent of their costs, and Bay Link would likely do even worse) but too few to attract federal funding.

“There’s intense competition [for federal transportation dollars] out there,” said Robert Peskin of the consulting firm AECOM. “There are other projects that, frankly, are more likely to get the funding.”

That would leave South Florida governments paying a $70 million annual tab for capital and operating expenses by themselves, he added, at a time when conventional government resources for transportation are completely tapped out.

The prospects for outside funding are so bleak, Peskin added, that officials should consider slapping a toll of $1 or $2 on every vehicle crossing the MacArthur and Julia Tuttle causeways. “I’m waiting for somebody to throw something at me,” he confessed.

That didn’t quite happen, but neither will the toll, Levine said. “I don’t think anybody here has the stomach for tolls on the causeway,” he said, as Gimenez nodded vigorously in agreement.

The consultants also warned that popular sentiment on Miami Beach for a wireless trolley is likely futile. Though some trolley systems draw their power from their tracks, that’s impractical for a city with flooding and drainage issues, they said.

And though some trolleys carry their own power supply on board in the form of batteries or electrical capacitors, that’s expensive — the batteries have to be replaced periodically — and heavy, which reduces the overall performance of the trolley cars.

“You can mix and match these systems,” said John Smatlak of the consulting company InterFleet Technology,” suggesting that Bay Link would probably have to have a combination of overhead wires and on-board batteries.

Much of the consultants’ report was greeted with silence by the committee. But one suggestion — that Bay Link’s best chance for quick fruition would be through a public-private partnership like the PortMiami Tunnel, designed, built and operated by a concessionaire agglomeration of private companies — excited the politicians.

Several of them agreed with the consultants that private companies could probably come up with creative financing and engineering to keep costs down and get the work done more quickly.

“I certainly think that the [public-private partnership], if we’re going to do this, is the way to go,” Gimenez said. And Levine added that the right deal with a private partnership might “suddenly make us enthusiastic about wires.”

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