Mass Transit

Miami Politicians Do Their Level Best to Spend as Much as Humanly Possible on Transit

Politicians reject a plan to expand bus service on a bus-only road, demanding instead that a light rail line be built alongside it.

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Felzum/Dreamstime.com

Some politicians just want to spend money, even when opportunities for savings are smacking them in the face. Witness the fight breaking out between Miami-area politicians over whether they should use light rail or Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) to extend transit service to southern Miami-Dade County.

On the face of it, BRT—basically an express bus service that uses larger vehicles to make frequent trips in dedicated lanes—sounds like a better deal. The county already maintains a bus-only roadway that would be used for any new BRT route, whereas a rail extension would require new track to be laid. A BRT line is estimated to cost $250–$300 million, while a light rail expansion servicing the same area would cost as much as $1.5 billion to build—and 80 percent more to operate. A BRT line could be finished by 2022. Light rail would take years longer.

True, the county estimates that a BRT line would carry only 25,000 people a day, compared to the 40,000 who would supposedly take the light rail. Nevertheless, BRT still works out to be the cheaper-per-passenger option.

Besides the cost, there's the flexibility. Light rail is permanent, so it will always go to the same place, even if people, homes, and jobs move elsewhere. BRT can be more responsive to changing transit patterns.

Some cities have seen great success with BRT lines. Los Angeles' Orange Line—an 18-mile BRT route that opened in 2005—exceeded ridership estimates by threefold, a true rarity in public transit. Cash-strapped locales like Mexico City and Istanbul have used BRT to build out their transit networks without breaking the bank.

All that has been enough for Mayor Carlos Gimenez to endorse BRT. But state Rep. Kionne McGhee (D–South Dade) has spent the last two years leading what he calls a "revolt" against BRT.

"People in the south understand that if they settle for a bus, they'll never get a rail. Nobody wants buses," McGhee told The Miami Herald last week. Last week he sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Transportation urging it to deny any funds to Miami-Dade County that were not earmarked for light rail. His Twitter feed features frequent and impassioned denunciations of anyone advocating transit that doesn't run on tracks.

It isn't entirely clear why exactly McGhee and his allies prefer a vastly more expensive light rail system. Looking at the comments from pro-rail politicians going back several years, their reasoning seems to be that rail is just self-evidently better. "People don't like to take buses. Unless they have no alternative," County Commissioner Xavier Suarez told the Herald in 2016.

"I say let's go for it. If we fall short, at least we're falling short in trying to make a difference, and trying to bring enhanced transportation to this community," Commissioner Dennis Moss said last year of a plan that would prioritize light rail over BRT.

Baruch Feigenbaum, a transportation policy analyst with the Reason Foundation (the nonprofit that publishes this website), says politicians have an innate bias in favor of light rail.

"Politicians don't care about cost-benefit analysis," he says. "What they know is what they can visualize and what they can cut a ribbon on."

The county's transportation board is scheduled to vote on BRT on July 19.

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  1. Baruch Feigenbaum, a transportation policy analyst with the Reason Foundation (the nonprofit that publishes this website), politicians have an innate bias against light rail.

    This seems counter-intuitive enough to suspect an edit should be forthcoming.

    1. Yes, missing a verb and the quote contradicts everything before and after.

      “Politicians don’t care about cost-benefit analysis,” he says. “What they know is what they can visualize and what they can cut a ribbon on.”

  2. “People … understand that if they settle for a bus, they’ll never get a rail. Nobody wants buses.”

    “People … understand that if they settle for a light rail, they’ll never get a hyper loop. Nobody wants rails.”

    “People … understand that if they settle for a hyper loop, they’ll never get a teleporter. Nobody wants loops.”

  3. It seems like liberals have some sort of sexual fetish with trains.

    1. It’s the central planning aspect, the control, and like TFA says, the ribbon cutting ceremonies which prove they are doing … something … No one ever campaigns on improved efficiencies when they can campaign on Big Ideas.

      1. It’s the central planning aspect, the control

        I suspect that’s a much bigger part of it than they’ll ever admit. The fact that rails are “fixed” – the train goes where the train goes, and nothing will ever change that – makes it the perfect form of public transit for control fetishists who hate change.

    2. I agree. I think the term ‘Mertosexual’ is misapplied. The English language already has a perfectly good term for a man who is highly concerned with his grooming; fop. Metrosexual should mean ‘A man who is sexually excited by commuter light rail’.

      1. Trainsexual? MetroTrainSexual? I think you’re on to something!

    3. It was the late, President Ronald Reagan who helped to create the Mass Transit Fund; which provides Federal dollars for both bus & rail projects like what’s being considered in Miami.

      And as two conservatives, Mr. Paul Wayrich and Mr. William Lind, found out in a series of studies; conservatives are far more likely to ride a train than a bus. Just in case you don’t know who Paul Weyrich was, he co-founded the conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation. He was also partially responsible for the Moral Majority.

      But he knew like many other smart conservatives, that trains can actually move more people at a lower cost than buses and that trains require far fewer union workers than do buses, something else a good conservative should like.

  4. You’re getting a choo-choo! And you’re getting a choo-choo! Everybody’s getting a choo-choo!!!!

  5. Refresh my memory; have ANY of the various high-profile Light Rail projects undertaken in this country during the last half-century met their ‘projected’ ridership numbers? I don’t recall any.

    1. No. None of them were completed on time, or within budget either.

      Every single time they try this, it fails.

      And yet, they insist on doing it again and again.

  6. Baruch Feigenbaum, a transportation policy analyst with the Reason Foundation (the nonprofit that publishes this website), politicians have an innate bias against light rail.

    Shouldn’t that be “politicians have an innate bias against buses?”

  7. “People don’t like to take buses.”

    Right. They’d prefer to take their own car, but when that’s not available, they’ll take the bus, which is much more preferable to taking a train. Taking a train is a much bigger pain in the ass than taking a bus. A bus has way more routes and way more stops, meaning they’re more convenient than trains. A train is better for taking a long commute (8 miles+) from the sub/exurbs into a big city, but a bus (or tram) is way better (and cheaper) to take for shorter trips within a city. If you must have a train, then fine have one, but it’s not a replacement for a bus. On the other hand, buses/trams can be a replacement for a train.

    1. Trains > Buses every day, if you usually drive and are forced to take transit.

      Bus schedules are like the New England Patriots playbook. It takes a college educated QB 15 years to learn it.
      The train boards at a few places, and you can see all the upcoming stops on the poster inside the train. The bus you never know where you’re going next.

  8. 1.4 billion to be spent to benefit 40,000 daily commuters?

    Why not just buy each of them a new $37,500 car?

    How about a 2018 Lincoln MKZ Select? MSRP $37,355.

    1. Because that would cost far more than the train; that’s why we don’t do that!!!

      If you buy each rider a car, you’ve already spent $1.5 Billion, before you’ve even paid for the sales tax & licensing fees. And that car will only last if lucky, maybe 10 to 12 years. The train will last 30 to 40 years. So you really need to buy them 3 cars to provide an alternative to the train.

      Then you need to pay for repairs, insurance, gas before you’ve given them an actual alternative to the train. I won’t even get into the huge subsidies that go into our roads & highways.

      But maybe you just like higher taxes?

  9. So folks don’t like buses. So ask the question in a different way: would you prefer a bus that costs $2 per ride or a train that costs $10/ride?

    1. They’d prefer a train that costs $2 per ride for them, and are happy to let the taxpayer make up the difference.

    2. According to the National Transit Database report for 2016, the latest available, it costs $4.37 per bus ride taken in this country. It costs $4.06 per ride taken on a light rail train.

      And on average, bus riders covered 24% of their $4.37 while light rail riders covered 25.6% of their $4.06 at the fare box.

      So I guess the real question is, would you prefer helping to pay part of the $3.03 for each light rail rider or part of the $3.32 per bus rider?

      1. I just scanned the 59 page report, and I couldn’t see anywhere that used the figures you are presenting as some sort of global metric for comparing all light rail service to all bus service. Could you point me to where you got your figures, please?

        1. I’m sorry, the site won’t let me provide a direct link; so I’ve created a Tiny URL link.

          https://tinyurl.com/y85rt6nh

          If’ you’d prefer not to use a link that you can’t actually see where it’s going, then Google NTD Data. The link should say something about “transit.dot” “ntd” :ntadata”. Then on the left column, click “Transit Agency Profiles.” When that page loads, up in the description at the top is a link that says “Summary Profile Page” click that. Pick “part 1” of the 3 part report available for 2016.

          Then, regardless of how you got there:.

          Page 142, right side.

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