By Michael Vasquez
In a city where mass transit is synonymous with broken promises and disappointment, downtown Miami's Metromover has been the little engine that could.
The junior-sized, fully-automated trains ferry nearly 10 million passengers around the downtown and Brickell neighborhoods each year. Tourists ride the Metromover. So do Miami Dade College students, big-shot downtown attorneys, and fancy Brickell condo dwellers.
Since 2002, the rides have been free -- a promise made to voters who approved a half-percent sales tax increase for local transit that year. Other lofty promises made to voters, such as huge expansions to the larger Metrorail system, never happened.
Now, the free Metromover rides are at risk. Miami-Dade County Commissioner Barbara Jordan is pushing to charge Metromover riders -- arguing it's unfair that Metrorail and bus riders pay $2.25, while Metromover passengers pay nothing. With luxury condos increasingly dotting the downtown skyline, Jordan last year complained that lower-income passengers in other parts of Miami-Dade are basically footing the bill for affluent downtowners.
"We're transferring [help] from where we could give discounts to people who can't afford it, to people who can afford it -- and we're letting them ride free," she said.
Commissioner Sally Heyman has joined Jordan in advocating for a fare on Metromover, but the idea died last year because of a lack of support from other commissioners.
On Wednesday, Jordan's Metromover idea will return -- with a new twist. The commissioner wants to ask voters in November to voluntarily give up their free rides. At a 9:30 a.m. meeting of the county's Transit and Mobility Services Committee, Jordan will ask other commissioners to support putting the question to voters.
It's unclear what the exact wording on the ballot would be, or how much a Metromover fare could end up being (it used to be 25 cents). Jordan's item on the agenda doesn't get into those specifics, and the commissioner's office said she was "not available for comment."
By placing the power in voters' hands, Jordan's fare proposal may get a warmer reception from other county commissioners than it did a year ago. After all, if they vote in favor, they wouldn't be actually approving a fare hike, they'd just be approving a ballot question for voters.
But would voters voluntarily give up the perk of riding around downtown for free?
"I would vote no," said Metromover rider Jeniffer Gaitan, 22, who lives in Little Havana. "That's crazy, we're already paying enough for the bus, and for the train, why would I pay for a Metromover?"
"Most people use it because it's free," said Metromover rider John Kennedy, a medical student who lives near Brickell and commutes to Jackson Memorial Hospital. If a fare went into place, Kennedy said "I would still use it, because it's worth the convenience, it would just be annoying."
Miami-Dade will spend nearly $533 million this year operating its transit system, and adding Metromover fares to the mix wouldn't make much of a dent in that massive expense. A memo from Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez to county commissioners estimates that with a hypothetical Metromover fare of one dollar, the county would only gain between $849,000 and $1.5 million in additional revenue each year.
And that revenue would come with a catch. First, it's possible that Metromover ridership -- which has been steadily increasing -- would drop because of the new fare. Second, Gimenez's memo estimates that it would cost more than $9 million to install fare-collection equipment at all 21 Metromover stations.
So, in other words, the county might have to charge a fare for a decade before it even starts making money on the deal.
Gimenez has staunchly opposed adding a Metromover fare -- so much so that he highlighted the issue in last year's State of the County Speech. In that speech, Gimenez stressed that voters were promised the free rides when they voted to raise the sales tax in 2002, and that the county should keep up its end of the bargain.
Gimenez's continued opposition could end up killing Commissioner Jordan's newest fare proposal -- long before it ever gets in front of voters.
"His position hasn't changed," said the mayor's spokesman, Michael Hernandez. "Gimenez does not believe that we should break another promise from the half penny."
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