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One Transit Fan Takes on Miami Metrorail’s Lack of Transparency

What started as a simple question, “when will Metrorail riders on evenings and weekends be spared the longer waits for train arrivals,” has turned into a 5,757-page journey of emails and attachments, all without an answer.

Transit advocate Kevin Amézaga poses at the Overtown Metrorail station platform with boxes full of Metrorail's public records
Transit advocate Kevin Amézaga poses at the Overtown Metrorail station platform with boxes full of Metrorail's public records he got from the Miami-Dade County as he tries to unearth why Metrorail can be so late sometimes, in Miami, on Friday October 27, 2023.
Pedro Portal/TNS
Kevin Amézaga borrowed a hand truck from work to tote around the three cardboard boxes of emails and attachments that a Miami-Dade County, Fla., worker printed out on 5,757 single-sided pages, a trove of transit correspondence the 21-year-old paid $153 to read.

A tech worker from Miami who once designed a Metromover fan T-shirt, Amézaga made a public records request this summer in a quest to answer a simple question: When will Metrorail riders on evenings and weekends be spared the longer waits for train arrivals?

“My question was when can we expect that to end?” Amézaga said while sipping on an iced Americano coffee in a Wynwood cafe and scrolling through emails he scanned from his records request. “There is no answer to that.”

A transit advocate since attending the Miami Arts Studio county magnet program at Zelda Glazer school in West Kendall, Amézaga (uh-MEZ-uh-guh) captures the promise of mobility in Miami-Dade.

He’s a homegrown tech worker with a car but still is a habitual Metromover user who catches Metrorail trains for weekend runs to visit friends in the suburbs and the occasional flight out of Miami International Airport.

Lately, he’s also assumed the role of an increasingly well informed critic of Miami-Dade’s transit system, knocking the administration of Mayor Daniella Levine Cava for a dated approach to managing information and a woeful effort at keeping riders informed.

“We’re just left in the dark,” he said. “It’s not very transparent.”

Amézaga’s research centers on extended use of “single-tracking” on Metrorail, where the system shuts down one of the two sets of tracks available for trains on certain portions of the 25-mile system. That allows maintenance work to occur on the other set in that area of the system but also means longer waits as arriving and departing trains are forced to share one set of tracks.

He said the emails highlighted to him the link between single tracking and Miami-Dade’s continuing $82 million project to replace acoustical barriers along the tracks that reduce train noise. Originally scheduled to finish in late 2022, the new end date is 2025 after commissioners approved expanding the job from a partial to a full replacement.

What About Off-Peak Riders?

For Amézaga, the extended maintenance work reflects a lack of concern for riders who aren’t using transit during the traditional rush-hour commutes. And acceptance that off-peak delays don’t require urgent action.

“If we blocked off a road for three years at night,” he said, “people would be upset.”

Asked about Amezaga’s gripes, the press office for the Department of Transportation and Public Works said single-tracking disruptions are part of maintenance but that the agency is working to make the work less disruptive. Along with the acoustical barriers, the transit system needs single-tracking for the ongoing construction of a new civil courthouse near the Metrorail line and two replacement projects for aging components of the train tracks.

“The department expects to be single tracking with the current intensity for the projects mentioned for the next 18 to 24 months,” said Luis Espinoza, a spokesperson for Transportation and Public Works. “Nonetheless, we are evaluating current single tracking schedules to potentially enhance late night and weekend headways. We hope to be able to make some improvements in the coming months.”

For Amézaga, the hunt for transit answers became a paperwork slog.

While the information he requested existed on emails, Transportation and Public Works provided hard copies of the electronic correspondence. That left him to convert the printed pages back into searchable electronic records using a scanner at his office job in Wynwood. Amézaga said he filled a coffee mug to the top with the paperclips that the county provided with the papers.

In a statement, Transportation and Public Works noted Amézaga didn’t specify he’d prefer receiving electronic records in his July 14 request for agency emails and correspondence related to single-tracking. The statement also said redacting personal information is easier with printed records, and that Amézaga’s fee for the documents could have been much higher than $153.

“To increase transparency and ease the financial burden on the requestor given the substantial request, over $500 of labor costs over a 5-day period were waived,” the statement said.

The deep dive into county records extended Amézaga’s role as a crusader for better transit in Miami-Dade. At age 17, he and the late Alejandra Agredo, a fellow high school student, founded the Miami Riders Alliance to formalize their efforts to demand improved transit service. Amézaga won a Silver Knight award in 2020 for his work in co-founding the group.

Mary Street, a lawyer who serves on the Citizens Independent Transportation Trust, a county transportation board, said she admires Amézaga for being a transit critic who still keeps an eye out for when things go right.

“He’s able to see the nuances of things,” Street said. “He gives credit where credit is due. And he critiques where it needs to be critiqued.”

A magna cum laude graduate of Florida International University’s information technology program in 2022, Amézaga occasionally wears a T-shirt he designed celebrating the automated shuttle cars that the county runs on elevated tracks by his downtown apartment. The shirt reads: “#1 Metromover Fan,” and includes an image of a Metromover car he drew.

“He puts his time where his heart is,” said Kyle Merville, a Miami small-scale developer and a fellow transit buff who said he and Amézaga bonded over a fantasy expansion map for Metrorail that Merville created in the early weeks of the pandemic. “He’s passionate about making metro Miami a better place.”

Mayor Responds to Post About Paying for Records

Amézaga’s records quest got attention. A few hours after tagging Levine Cava in a social-media post about the $153 invoice for his request, Levine Cava texted him: “Please tell me exactly what you are seeking and I will get you the answer without having to pay for records. Daniella.”

He wrote back that he had already paid for the records but mostly wanted information on when night and weekend riders can expect the single-tracking delays to be over. “For sure,” Levine Cava responded. “Hard to predict but I am pressing for answers too.”

Espinoza, the Transportation spokesperson, said single-tracking complications can’t be eliminated entirely because repair crews routinely need access to the tracks.

“In essence, this is the equivalent of a road construction project, where vehicles are asked to use one side of the road for small stretch while the work is performed on the other side,” Espinoza said. “This is very critical work that needs to be done to our Metrorail system to maintain a state of good repair for the safety of thousands of riders daily as well as to upkeep with operation requirements from the Federal Transit Administration.”

Because using only one track can slow train arrivals, transit managers try to schedule maintenance when there is less demand for Metrorail rides. That means nighttime and weekends, when lighter staffing already has trains arriving less frequently.

Since 2018, according to Transportation and Public Works, weekend waits for most Metrorail trains have been 30 minutes, compared to five minutes during weekday rush hours for most stations.

The issue is enough of a hassle for riders that the agency produced a video in July explaining how single-tracking allows overnight crews to perform crucial upgrades that make the overall system more reliable.

“We understand that single tracking can be inconvenient and appreciate your patience as we work towards a better rail system for all,” the agency said.

Finding New Sources of Information

Amézaga’s email dive revealed some other sources of transit information he decided to pursue as well. Those included reports Miami-Dade sends to the state on Metrorail track issues and monthly updates Transportation and Public Works prepares for Levine Cava.

After some additional research on Florida’s open-records law, Amézaga recorded a minor win in receiving electronic records instead of paper ones.

“This time I was more insistent that the law requires they provide me the original format,” he said. “They tried to get me get printed-out copies.”

He called the graphics-heavy reports to Levine Cava a pleasant discovery, given how much good information was being prepared solely for consumption on the mayor’s suite of 29th-floor offices at the Stephen P. Clark Government Center.

Those include a “Schedule Performance Index” rating how well transit sticks to schedules, tickers on the progress of various transportation projects, and whether crime is up or down at rail stations.

“They’re easily digestible, detailed reports,” he wrote in a recent text message. “It shows that the mayor and her administration are focused on moving transit forward, but that they’re doing really poorly at communicating that progress out to the public.”

©2023 Miami Herald. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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