The Miami Beach monorail inches closer to reality with $14 million county deal

Douglas Hanks
·7 min read

Miami-Dade commissioners approved a $14 million contract Tuesday for detailed designs of a four-mile monorail system between Genting’s Miami property and South Beach, the first step toward building a transit system sought for decades and a decision Beach leaders criticized as too hasty.

“I believe the time is now,” Commissioner Sally Heyman said ahead of the lopsided vote for the deal. She’s one of two board members representing Miami Beach, which passed a resolution asking the county to slow down the vote for an 18-month interim agreement for a project expected to cost more than $500 million to build.

The other commissioner representing Miami Beach, Eileen Higgins, had asked to delay the vote on a contract added to the commission’s agenda late last week. “I personally have a ton of questions. Pages and pages of them,” Higgins said.

But with a majority of commissioners pressing for a vote weeks before county elections will shift power to a new board and mayor, Higgins dropped her opposition.

She joined the majority in a 10-to-2 vote for approving the contract with a tweak to include study of a possible station location on Miami Beach’s Washington Avenue. The two No votes came from commissioners Rebeca Sosa and Xavier Suarez. Commissioner Jean Monestime was not present for the vote.

The agreement marks the first time Miami-Dade will actually be paying toward a transit project over the MacArthur Causeway, after decades of effort pursuing a rail line that used to be called Baylink.

The approved agreement pays the Miami Beach Monorail Consortium — a partnership that includes the Malaysian casino company Genting and Meridiam, developer of the Port Miami Tunnel — $8 million over 18 months to design the proposed elevated monorail system along the MacArthur.

Miami-Dade would also have to ready the land acquisitions needed for the project, including the waterfront former Miami Herald property that Genting purchased in 2011.

That would be home to a new transit station, including a platform for monorail and one for the county’s existing Metromover system. Both are automated transit systems running on rubber wheels, and critics of the monorail proposal point to a county study showing extending Metromover along the MacArthur would draw more passengers by offering a “one-seat” ride from downtown Miami to the Beach.

Genting and partners were the only bidders last year in a procurement process the county launched at the monorail group’s request, and the venture says the narrower tracks and the Genting property make monorail the more affordable option.

$6 million for monorail group if county rejects final bid

Miami-Dade would own the $8 million worth of design work produced during the interim agreement, and transit director Alice Bravo said the studies could be used if the county opted to start fresh or switch to a Metromover extension. If Miami-Dade decides not to sign a final agreement, the monorail group would collect a termination fee capped at $6 million, for work done during the interim agreement.

The monorail consortium would provide the dollars upfront to build the system, with a development cost of more than $700 million in the proposal the partners submitted in March. The partnership would run the system, and earn about $60 million a year in payments from Miami-Dade. The final costs and fees would be negotiated by the next administration, which could decide to drop the effort. The next commission would need to approve the final deal.

The partnership includes Aqualand Development, a company formed by lobbyists Ralph Garcia-Toledo and Jesse Manzano-Plaza, who were the leaders of Gimenez’s 2016 reelection bid.

“A transit solution for the Beach Corridor has been more than three decades in the making and we are so pleased that the Commission overwhelmingly voted in favor of taking this important step,” read a statement from the monorail partnership. “We look forward to working with the Miami-Dade County administration and the community over the next 12 to 18 months to lay critical planning, engineering and budgeting groundwork for the Miami Beach Monorail.”

Commissioners who prevailed on Tuesday’s vote said it made no sense to delay a $14 million deal and risk letting a new commission stall progress toward mass transit on one of the county’s busiest causeways. “Half of us are out on the campaign trail. We’re talking about transportation issues,” said Esteban “Steve” Bovo, a commissioner running to replace the county’s term-limited mayor, Carlos Gimenez. “For God’s sakes, let’s do something.”

At least six of the 13 commissioners leave office Nov. 17. Higgins would be the seventh if she loses her reelection bid on Nov. 3 to former school board member Renier Diaz de la Portilla. Bovo and Suarez are part of the first batch of commission retirements required by a two-term limit voters approved in 2012, and the board is racing to approve large projects before the new board takes their seats.

Audrey Edmonson, the term-limited board chairwoman, said she planned to call commissioners back at the end of October or even after the election to consider a pending deal with the for-profit Brightline train company for a commuter line to run between Miami and Aventura on tracks the company uses.

Gimenez, the Republican candidate in Florida’s 26th Congressional district, said he’d be happy to see a deal closed before he leaves office. But he suggested Brightline wants too much money from Miami-Dade for access to the tracks. “We have hit a snag” in talks, Gimenez said. “I will not be rushed into some kind of a number which doesn’t make sense. That’s the problem.”

Gimenez is neutral on the monorail proposal

Gimenez said he didn’t recommend the monorail proposal negotiated by his administration and sent to the commission with a memo under his name that said the agreement was “submitted for approval.” He corrected a county attorney who referred to it as “the mayor’s recommendation” and said he was neutral on the proposal.

“There are many more details to see before I would recommend anything,” Gimenez said before the vote. “And we don’t have the time required to get those details.”

Daniella Levine Cava, the other commissioner running for mayor, said she wanted Tuesday’s vote delayed, but only long enough to share more information about the proposal with critics. “I would like to see this resolved before the end of our terms,” she said.

Miami Beach mayor opposes the deal

Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber, a longtime foe of the casino Genting proposed shortly after purchasing the Herald property, issued a statement saying the commission “rushed into a plan that we will likely be living with for decades if not generations...It should be of no surprise that a vendor-driven process always seems to end with the vendor winning the bid.”

Dennis Moss, another outgoing commissioner, voted for the monorail agreement after losing in his bid in 2018 to bring Metrorail to his district in South Miami-Dade. The commission opted for a $300 million rapid-transit bus system instead, with a developer picked in June to build the 20-mile project.

He said he’d like to see monorail used elsewhere in the county, and that the system to Miami Beach promises to reshape the Miami skyline. “This is going to be a really iconic structure,” he said.

The monorail agreement stemmed from the 2016 SMART Plan, a process that launched transit studies for six commuting corridors across Miami-Dade. The South Miami-Dade bus agreement was the first major contract in the effort, and a deal with Brightline would be the third.

Moss said it’s good the elections are prodding commissioners to wrap up big deals.

“People try to make it into a bad thing when you’re trying to get things done before you leave,” he said. “We’re scrambling to get things done for our constituents because we understand these issues.”