One of Miami-Dade’s most hectic commuting corridors may be getting an advanced bus system with dedicated lanes to keep cars clear from a route starting west of Florida International University and connecting to the Metrorail station at Miami International Airport.
The $265 million project won unanimous approval Thursday from the county’s Transportation Planning Organization, a vital step toward spending the federal, state and county dollars needed toward starting construction. It would be the second “rapid transit” bus system in the county, with one already under contract to be built along South Miami-Dade’s busway.
Dedicated bus lanes along SR 836
While dedicated lanes already exist for that route running parallel to U.S. 1, the proposed East-West system would build one dedicated along Southwest Eighth Street before it connects with lanes running down the median of State Road 836 — a bus toll road also known as the Dolphin Expressway. The lane would be “reversible,” with buses going with traffic using it, while those going against traffic would use a regular lane.
The starting point would be the county’s new Tamiami park-and-ride complex, under construction at Eighth Street and Southwest 147th Avenue, and the end point would be MIA’s Miami Intermodal Center, which has a Tri-Rail station, too.
Another bus route would skip the MIA station and run along the median lanes of the 836 to downtown Miami. The Miami-Dade Expressway Authority, the toll board that runs the 836, has already built red-painted bus lanes along the median of the expressway and was running express buses on them before COVID-19 sent ridership plunging and prompted suspension of the service.
Riders on the new East-West line would pay ahead at bus stations built as part of the express route, and the buses would allow group boarding at curb level to speed stops. The system, best known as BRT for “bus rapid transit,” is billed as offering the amenities of rail at a fraction of the cost. (The southern BRT system costs about $300 million to build, compared to a Metrorail extension option estimated to cost more than $1 billion.)
“We’re providing iconic stations with all the amenities you would have at any Metrorail station,” county transportation director Alice Bravo told members of the transportation board, which includes the entire county commission and city leaders.
“The goal is that this bus is never stuck in traffic,” she said. Bravo also said the dedicated lane on a mile of Eighth Street and another mile 137th Avenue will be created using the medians and won’t eliminate existing lanes used for vehicles.
Commissioner Joe Martinez, whose western district includes parts of the approved bus project, said it would be ideal to extend Metrorail west, too. “But we can’t afford it,” he said. “This is a good investment.”
Miami-Dade commissioners still must approve funding for the project and seek contractors to build the project. Like the southern project, Miami-Dade needs to secure federal and state funding to pay for about two-thirds of the East-West project.
A second phase costing $153 million would run from the Dolphin park-and-ride complex in Doral to MIA as well. Stations built on the 836 would have elevators or escalators taking riders to the street level below, where there would be stops for county buses and city trolleys.
Operating costs for the first phase would run about $17 million a year, plus another $6 million for Phase 2. Ridership is estimated at up to 11,000 people a day.
Another decision for the SMART Plan
The unanimous vote essentially ends one of the remaining studies tied to the 2016 SMART Plan, which launched six engineering studies for the best transit options on six commuting routes.
The transportation board sets funding priorities for federal dollars, and the studies were designed to let the projects compete for large capital grants from Washington. The board has already approved bus for the South Miami-Dade route, Metromover or monorail for the eastern route to Miami Beach, elevated rail for the North Corridor along 27th Avenue.
Commuter rail on Brightline tracks between Miami and Aventura may get a vote in the coming weeks from the County Commission. That leaves Kendall as the lone SMART corridor without a decision from county leaders.
Better Bus Project endorsed
The East-West vote came shortly after a morning meeting of the County Commission, when the board endorsed a separate effort to boost bus ridership countywide. The Transit Alliance’s Better Bus Project combined two years of community meetings and ridership studies to produce a recommended realignment of the county’s routes. The result would be double or triple the number of potential riders living near a stop with a bus arriving about every 15 minutes, but also the elimination of some stops where buses don’t arrive frequently.
“The fundamental principle is basically to create a high-frequency network,” Bravo said. “We’re reallocating the resources. ... The idea is to feed people into those high-frequency routes and get to the major destinations.”
The framework won near unanimous support Thursday, though the hard votes come later since the kind of service reductions for some routes in the Better Bus plan will require future commission approval. Only Commissioner Barbara Jordan voted No on Thursday.
“It appears as if these recommendations are skewed to favor downtown and the beaches, while the outlaying areas will suffer even more,” she said. “I cannot support it.”