Here is a fable about mass transit. It happens in that faraway and storied land called Miami. Read this parable with care, because everything that happened in Miami 15 and 20 years ago is being echoed here in Tampa today.
When I lived in Miami, I was a big fan of mass transit - and with good reason. During 1989, my last year in the Magic City, I spent about three days each week working at an office in West Palm Beach, at least a 90 minute drive from my Coconut Grove home assuming a minimum of mayhem on Interstate 95. So, I would hop on the city's transit system, Metrorail, ride it to north Dade County where I switched to Tri-Rail, a commuter train that served Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm.
It didn't save much time, but the journey was usually a stress free, delightful trip. I would often have an entire Metrorail car to myself - that's not an exaggeration - and seldom were there more than three or four commuters on each Tri-Rail car. I could spread out my day's newspapers and magazines, and although bureaucrats had decreed that no edibles should be consumed or liquids imbibed on their shiny trains, there was seldom anyone to notice if I had breakfast or an afternoon repast, a cup of coffee or even a bottled cocktail.
In short, I often had a private - and seldom less than semi-private - form of transportation. Very penny-wise, too. I would pay a buck for the roughly 20 mile ride on Metrorail, less than the gasoline it would take to drive that distance. Of course, everyone else in Dade County had to kick in to make my trip so luxuriantly comfortable. Every time I paid $1, the public subsidy was another $15.19. Not a bad deal - for me.
Occasionally, I would take Metrorail downtown, and then connect to where I was going on the people mover, dubbed the Metromover. That was an even better bargain for me, but a far worse deal for all of my fellow citizens who subsidized my travel. The public cost was almost four times that of Metrorail -- $14.95 on every 25 cent one-way Metromover trip.
When Metrorail was proposed by "visionary" and "enlightened"
politicians and train buffs in the 1970s, it was supposed to cost $100
million. The main line would run along existing railroad right-of-way,
so costs would be kept at a minimum.
Even so, voters in 1976 turned down financing for the trains by a 2-1 margin. Undeterred by the idea of democracy, the politicians and powerful downtown Miami business executives sought aid from the federal government, which they got.
Citizens demanded a second referendum to stop the boondoggle, and the politicians - of the same ethics challenged species we find prevalent in Hillsborough County - lied and deceived, claiming they would boost the bus fleet to 900 vehicles, and that there would be no cost overruns on the rail line.
Metrorail barely survived that referendum, getting 50.54 percent of
the vote - and then the politicians slapped their foreheads and said, "
Oh, we forgot about those cost overruns." Ultimately,
the county manager conceded he had known about the out-of-control costs
all along, but had fibbed - for the public good, of course. The 900 buses
never materialized about 600 run today.
What was clear is that if the public had known the real truth about the rail system, voters would have turned thumbs down.
Meanwhile, the rail manufacturers and developers soon owned the "visionaries," and the final cost of Metrorail soared to more than $1.5 billion.
All along, the Metrorail effort was spurred, prodded and eulogized by the most powerful voice in the community, The Miami Herald. And a few years later, an expansion of the people mover line to the newspaper's parking lot, would become a litmus test for editorial endorsement. It took a weekly newspaper in Miami to report that the Herald's parent company had secretly purchased a lot of land around its building, speculating on the development that would follow the Metromover extension.
As a Herald reporter in the 1970s, I followed the county
honchos around to dozens of meetings where they tried to sell the rail
plan and assess public opinion. Interestingly, the only public opinion
they seemed to hear was pro-rail. Critics -
when the officials even acknowledged the existence of foes - were dismissed as malcontents and loonies.
At the meetings, the rail guys would have a map showing the initial north-south route plus a secondary transit line serving whichever neighborhood they were addressing. A different map for each meeting, and few caught on to the scam. Everyone was going to get a piece of the pie, the rail proponents said. Of course, as it turned out, the train promoters knew all along there would never be enough money to build all of the additional lines they promised.
Meanwhile, all of the political insiders were scrambling their way to the feeding trough. The county's then mayor and his brother, a powerful state legislator, bought land and threw up a cheap office building just before the Metrorail routes were announced. Guess what? Yes, one of those routes miraculously happened to run right through the mayor's building, which he then claimed was made of solid gold. (Ironically, the feeding frenzy got so intense, the Metrorail money ran out before the line through the mayor's building could be built.)
There are currently about 50,000 one-way trips on Metrorail each day. About 20,000 people, or 1 percent of Dade citizens use the train. When Metrorail was planned, the pols had consultants do studies that proved - absolutely, conclusively, definitively - that the trains would carry no fewer than 262,000 people a day. Later, they said maybe only 202,000 would ride the rails in the early years, but never, ever, less than that. You can bet on it, the consultants said, and Dade did.
Then reality hit. Oops! (Didn't we see those same consultants projecting throngs at the Florida Aquarium? Or booming business at the Tampa Convention Center?)
Actually, the combined ridership of Metrorail and the Metrobus fleet
is less than what the "experts" promised the train system would carry alone.
Transportation is a leading cause of a major budget crisis in Dade. Last
fall, faced with a $58 million shortfall, Dade proposed the draconian slashing
of 10 of its 78 bus routes and scaling back 56 others. Metrorail hours
were to be cut on Sunday. Dade Mayor Alex Penelas, feeling political heat,
vetoed the cuts, but the crisis hasn't
Penelas - who must have clones running around the Hillsborough County Building - is now proposing to vastly enlarge a system that has never worked, the epitome of throwing more good money after bad. He is lobbying Washington for $3 billion, much of it to expand Metrorail.
Unfortunately, what Penelas and his fellow travellers in Hillsborough haven't t realized is that trains seldom work. Despite a flurry of train building projects throughout the nation, mass transit is a failing industry. There were about 7.5 million mass transit trips in 1970, and the very same number two decades later - during a period when the population increased 20 percent and the workforce swelled by 50 percent.
While some cities are opting to start rail systems - feeling the frantic pressure of rail fanatics and social experimenters called the "New Urbanists" who want to change your lifestyle - other cities are saying no. Most telling, the city cited as the glowing model for rail systems, Oregon, voted by a 53 percent majority on Nov. 5, 1996, to turn down a new mass transit line expansion for Portland. Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber is quoted in the Oregonian Newspaper saying: "We have to step back... a little bit and ask whether light rail, and light rail in that form, is the right commitment."
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