Not many cities in the world provide free transportation systems, but many of those that do have that ‘world-class’ quality that we strive for. Sydney, Chengdu, Athens, Bangkok and Seattle all have area wide free public transit. The Metromover is one of the signature elements of Downtown Miami and as we’ve recently seen, the development boom is sure to draw a lot of focus and a lot of people to the already dense area. Having an efficient and economical way to move all those people around is crucial to the sustainability of the neighborhood and health of the community. The Metromover also connects the Omni district to Downtown and Brickell allowing people from those areas to freely mingle. There’s additionally been talk at times of extending its reach to Midtown, Little Havana and South Beach which would further integrate the service into our societal fabric.
I love the Metromover. In a world where there’s no such thing as a “free ride,” it’s FREE! Well, not exactly. In 2002, the people (meaning us citizens of Miami) voted for the creation of the Citizens’ Independent Transportation Trust (CITT) and a new, half-penny sales surtax that still funds both the CITT and provides for the ‘free’ Metromover. The motion was later ratified by the County Commission. It’s a lengthy read, but ultimately, it was seen as a great moment where both the County government and community members understood the need to have an independent body responsible for directing the county’s transportation plan and investments.
The CITT’s purpose is to execute what is called the “People’s Transportation Plan.” The PTP, as it’s referred to throughout CITT’s website is a combination of auditing and planning of transit improvements funded through the surtax. Curious about what it’s brought us? There’s a helpful list of currently funded programs and future projects. Now, one could fault the CITT for it’s lack of vision in implementing a more comprehensive transit system (the PTP runs on a 5-year plan cycle – not really a lot of time to address the gaping holes in Miami’s infrastructure) or lack of strategic vision, but when it comes to the Metromover, they have defended the fare-free status of the Metromover since the original legislation passed.
The county Transit and Mobility Services Committee recently recommended implementing a 50-cent fare by a 3-2 vote (http://www.miamitodaynews.com/2015/02/18/new-metromover-fare-rolls-ahead/). The Commission was to hear and possibly vote on the proposed changes on March 3rd, but the item was deferred until March 17th as Commissioner Jordan wasn’t there to support her own proposal. What’s that you say? You haven’t heard anything about this and it’s already headed to the Commission for review?! Yes sir/ma’am, this issue literally flew through the legislative process (adopted on its first reading on 9/3/2014) and is now before the County Commission where it will require two-thirds approval to pass. Let’s recall that the CITT and the half-penny tax were approved by popular vote to fund a fare-free Metromover. The CITT Executive Director, Charles Schurr, has publicly voiced opposition to this proposal since it directly goes against the people’s vote in 2002. From the minutes of a February 12 meeting: “Mr. Scurr noted the efforts made to resolve this matter; however, the Trust(CITT) members could not identify a compelling public purpose to change the policy and promise to voters.” Shouldn’t a reversal of that legislation require a popular repeal?
Sure, there are arguments to make for implementing a fare. Providing better service, expansion of existing service, funding of a comprehensive transit plan would all be fitting causes. Unfortunately, the co-prime sponsors of the motion, Commissioner Barbara Jordan and Commissioner Sally Heyman, haven’t publicly provided any reasoning beyond beefing up transit department coffers and capitalizing on the growth of Brickell and downtown. In a meeting of the County Finance Committee – it should be noted this issue in June of 2013 (a now defunct group and also important to note that the recommendation came out of a budgetary committee and not a group dedicated to transit or services), Commissioner Heyman put forward the original motion according to the meeting minutes:
“Commissioner Heyman noted concern that the Metromover was a free service being provided in an area experiencing a tremendous amount of new residential and commercial development. She said that people have found ways to avoid paying parking fees by using this free transportation service. Commissioner Heyman noted that although the transit system was operating in a deficit, she continued to support giving free transportation passes to senior citizens and veterans. She noted that Metromover became a free service before at least 20 new hi-rise residential buildings and resorts were built along its route and now needed to be re-evaluated. “
Commissioner Heyman would rather focus on the lost parking revenue than the service the Metromover provides, the mobility it offers, the integration of communities it facilitates or how it alleviates traffic congestion. What about the huge benefit the Metromover provides (especially on rainy or hot days) to downtown service workers who would be disproportionately burdened by a fee? It truly is all about the Benjamins. Before any fare is implemented, we should demand a comprehensive transit plan from the CITT or if they are incapable of doing so, find or create a body that is capable. Any added revenue from the transit system should be reinvested in that plan. Transparency of all this should be a prerequisite.
A lot of unsubstantiated claims were made by Commissioners in the recent Transit and Mobility Services Committee meeting. In the Miami Today article, reference is made to a ‘county analysis’ espousing the benefits of the fare. Commissioner Jordan’s office declined to respond to requests for the analysis, but Miami Today reporter, Lidia Dinkova, provided a link to the original memo issued to the Commission by Mayor Gimenez’s office. This two page document is worth a read. I’d like to focus on a few sections:
1) The first paragraph outlines the overall Metrorail and Metrobus (not including the Metromover conspicuously) operating expenses for 2013, which were $480M. It also explains that the revenue generated by these services covers only 23% of those expenses. The remainder is subsidized by “the General Fund, Federal and State grants, miscellaneous sources (advertising) and the Transit Surtax (otherwise known as the half-penny tax).” The operational expense of the Metromover system is a mere $22M. Why are the Metrorail/Metrobus expenses being used as justification for a Metromover fare? If those services are operating at a deficit, then perhaps those systems need revision. The memo implies that the Metromover’s free-fare status is contributing to the transit system deficit without showing any direct correlation or explicit information that the Metromover’s cost is being subsidized outside of the half-penny surtax.
2) The memo explains that the fare would yield approximately $600K annually (with no explanation as to how that figure was determined). The annual operational cost of the fare collection system is estimated at $475K (a 55% return). The Commission would be overturning a decade-old, publicly chosen system to net $600K to help fund a $480M transit budget. That $600K would have virtually no impact on the deficit. The $475K operation expense for fare collection is also misleading. Ms. Ysela Llort, Director of Miami-Dade transit previously stated annual fare collection costs would “based on the aggressiveness of the system… vary between $200,000 to a million dollars per year for collections, security, and etc.”
3) The implementation cost of the fare collection system is expected to range $2.4M to $9M depending on the level of sophistication and might be recouped in 5-10 years. That range would obviously only cover up a $6M implementation cost because remember, the fare collection would only net $600K a year.
4) Easy Card riders would have free transfer from Metrorail/Metrobus (YAY! Good news!) which means that only 4.2 Million of the 9 Million annual Metromover riders would likely have to pay. The expectation (again with no supporting information) is that only 1.2M riders would be willing to pay the fare. Furthermore, “It is important to note that according to Miami-Dade economic profile, 32.5% of County residents earn less than $25K per year. If a fare were reinstated, it would be a reasonable assumption that a number of riders would migrate from the Metromover to the fare-free…Trolley because of economic necessity.” Direct admission by the Mayor that it would impact a large number of low-income riders.
The final paragraph outlines other ideas for generating revenue and offloading costs through public private partnerships, but those “techniques would require additional policy formulation…” and “it is not yet clear at this point how much revenue would be generated through this strategy.”
Without having access to the original ‘analysis’ conducted by the county, I elected to do my own real-life survey of Miamians. A brief questionnaire was circulated online over the weekend asking about individual awareness of the fare proposal and if folks would continue to ride if the fare went into effect. You can answer it yourself here: http://goo.gl/forms/gDFxYmMxX2 . The results will be continually updated in these pie charts:
Some interesting comments from respondents:
“If there was a discount offered for frequent users or residents, I might consider still using the metro mover. Or if people who use the Metrorail could use the mover for free.”
“Everything is walking distance from the metro anyway and the wait… usually takes the same amount of time one could have strolled to their destination so I usually don’t use it.”
“Its particularly convenient because its free. I might choose a different option for a 50¢ fare.”
“I would ride but much less frequently. It’s also rare that I have change since most my transactions are not cash…so that would be annoying.”
But hey, why only rely on internet-based surveys? Talking to people in-person is more fun, so that’s what I did. The same survey was delivered to a handful of commuters on the morning of March 2nd. Many declined to have their comments shared, but most were entirely unaware of the proposal. Those who agreed to have their statements published are in the following audio clips.
Ultimately, there’s a lot of dissension between members of the County Commission and the motion is unlikely to pass. This overly long examination is instead meant to show how important it is to keep the public informed and for citizens to be vigilant in regards to local lawmakers. Just because a district is experiencing a period of growth and development does not mean we should overturn a publicly selected, free service to make a little money. Money is temporary, infrastructure is not. The Commission should remain focused on developing and implementing a complete transit system – one that serves and connects all communities. That is our most pressing need as we continue to grow and to combat the early effects of climate change on our fragile coastline. Until that happens, the fare will be unfair.