South Florida’s incomplete mass transit (among other things) inhibits the region’s delusions of grandeur in attracting Californians and New Yorkers

In recent weeks, south Florida’s elected officials led by Miami Mayor Frances Suarez (a man skillfully adroit enough but also so lacking in actual political conviction to be found in Trumpian, Never Trump GOP and Neoliberal Dem circles) have been pushing the region as a destination for those “stuck” in New York or the San Francisco Bay area.

In what was seen a coup locally (but an embarrassment to much of the rest of the world), Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner bought land in Miami-Dade County to relocate. Similarly many hedge fund managers and other investors have fled New York and come to south Florida.

The new transplants have put their kids in expensive private schools like Fort Lauderdale’s Pine Crest and have enhanced the local luxury car market from Coral Gables north to Boca Raton. While most of America is hurting in early 2021, south Florida east of US-1 is booming, at least for now.

The obvious retort to Suarez and others is that Florida lacks the infrastructure, cultural options such as museums, public urban parks (Florida’s State Parks are among the best in the country, but urban parks aren’t quite at the level of places which we are competing with or the places we are trying to poach people from ) and level of educational facilities both K-12 and in higher ed to attract truly exceptional middle-aged professionals. Texas, North Carolina and Georgia all have built-in advantages over Florida in the contest to win relocation’s from high-tax crowded cities in the era of remote work.

Florida hasn’t always been a backwater – at one time as our state at one time was arguably the biggest destination for tech innovation and startups outside California and maybe Texas. But that was then, the 1980’s and now Florida lags well behind other large sunbelt states in attracting young and middle aged professionals as well as a culture white collar entrepreneurship.

Additional listening: Florida History Podcast Episode 73 – High Tech Florida of the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s.

A major drawback for South Florida along with others mention above is the stagnant state of mass transit in the region.

High Speed Rail & Brightline

Florida should have been the leader in developing a High Speed Rail system.

Beginning in the late 1980’s High Speed Rail was talked about as a potential driver for the state’s economy. Florida would once again be the national leader, the first to innovate much as the Askew/Graham years had pushed Florida to the forefront of progressive business-friendly reforms nationally. Florida was as referenced in the above podcast, along the most innovative and successful place for high-tech jobs and young professional in the country.

When Jeb Bush was elected in 1998 he made it his mission to kill High Speed Rail even when voters of the state said otherwise by passing a constitutional amendment in 2000 to pursue the project.

Bush’s ideological zeal and his rumored interest in helping fellow-Texan Herb Kelleher’s Southwest Airlines whose intra-Florida flights were just becoming popular in the late 1990’s motivated his desire to kill High Speed Rail (HSR). Southwest in 1999 connected Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, Tampa, Jacksonville, Fort Myers and West Palm Beach with frequent 737 jet service. .

While Bush’s personal agenda derailed HSR and thwarted the will of Florida’s voters, projects have gone forward in other places including the Northeast Corridor with the Acela system which took Amtrak’s air/rail market share of the NE corridor traffic from about 30% in 2001 (airlines had the other 70%) to close to 75% by early 2020.

Rick Scott’s Florida turned down federal funding in 2011 for rail service. Ironically, a good chunk of that money of it ended up in Michigan, a state which at the time had a Republican Governor and Legislature. After accepting the funds, Michigan began working with the leadership in Illinois to cut the travel time by train between Detroit and Chicago substantially. Missouri, a state that has grown more conservative in recent years is also working hard to link Chicago and St Louis in the future with quicker rail of some sort.

Considering Florida’s Republican leadership talks big about bringing business to the state, but has a record worse than Georgia or Minnesota in attracting large companies you would think mass transit would be a priority. But it has not been.

Will 2021 change the attitudes toward this since so many Floridians are again talking big about attracting relocations?

In other locales, High and (slower)higher-speed rail have become the norm. In the United Kingdom where all of England’s major cities will soon be linked by HSR.  In England, fast trains just below HSR speeds have even been built to link major airports (like London’s Heathrow Express which runs from Heathrow Airport to Paddington Station in Central London) to the center of major cities. The Brightline which ran from 2018 until a COVID-driven suspension in early 2020 from MiamiCentral Station to West Palm Beach with an intermediate stop in Fort Lauderdale provides higher-speed-rail in south Florida. Plans for the service to extend toward Orlando and add more south Florida stops are on the books.

Brightline ticket

China has used HSR to spurn raid development and Chinese firms have aggressively bid to reduce the costs of new High Speed Rail projects in other countries and US states. In the near future we could very well see HSR in developing countries like Mexico and India.  For all of these places HSR has been a boom to increased business, more tourism and a higher standard of living.

Metrorail & Tri-Rail

By FrickFrack – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, 2018 South Florida rail transit map – one error – MiamiCentral is actually not connected to Government Center station of Metrorail/Metromover but is closer to the Metromover Wilkie D. Ferguson station and Metrorail Overtown station.

As the above map indicates, southern Florida does has have mass transit, beyond just the aforementioned Brightline.

Metrorail’s Orange Line already begins at the Miami Intermodel Center (the MIC) heading toward Downtown and beyond to Coral Gables, the University of Miami and Dadeland. The Green Line begins west of the Palmetto Expressway and ends up in Dadeland via Downtown Miami. The MIA Mover train takes passengers from the MIC to nearby Miami International Airport. Metrobus has several routes in and around the Dade County from the station and the facility is High Speed Rail ready, should our policy makers in Tallahassee ever get with the times and actually look to modernize Florida. A consolidated rental car center is also connected to the premises which eventually (we have been told for years ) will host the termination of Amtrak’s Silver Star and Silver Meteor service which runs up the east coast to New York City. However, this Amtrak portion that was supposed to open in 2016 is still not open.

Right now Metrorail only works for those directly along the rail line – basically Dadeland, The University of Miami and parts of Hialeah and Miami. It does serve Miami International Airport but by and large has become otherwise useless.

Metrorail plan in 2003 after a bond issue passed in 2002- Blue line was existence (now called the Green line). The only addition to the system since 2003 has been the Orange portion from Earlington Heights to the MIC.

Tri-Rail the local commuter line is useful in connecting Metrorail and Miami International Airport (Via the MIC) to Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. Other stations along its line like the Sheridan Street, Cypress Creek and Boca Raton stations are adjacent to business and shopping areas (Citix, the largest tech company based in south Florida has its corporate HQ within walking distance of the Cypress Creek station in Fort Lauderdale). However, otherwise the system is largely useless for most locals.

Plans for the Tri-Rail Coastal Link have been moving forward albeit at the usual slow bureaucratic pace that is expected in these parts The coastal link would funnel passengers to MiamiCentral station where they can connect to Metrorail (via the Historic Overtown/Lyric Theater Station) or Metromover (via the Wilkie B. Ferguson station).

Fort Lauderdale killed the planned The Wave streetcar line in 2018. To this point, the city has not offered an alternative plan to replace the axed transit system which would have run on a 2.7 mile network around downtown. Similarly, Miami operates a small trolley system in the Brickell area.

The Tri-Rail Coastal link in addition to new Brightline stations are critical if south Florida is ever going to move forward as a mature metropolitan area that actually is worthy of major corporate and individual relocations.

Metromover – the one piece that works albeit in a small area


Metromover map

One piece of south Florida transit that does work is Miami’s Metromover. I have worked off/on in the Brickell section of Miami for much of the last decade. For me, Metromover made Miami a great place to work, but of course, my living in Broward County meant the mass transit was only a weekday work hour convenience.

The free Metromover operation began service in May 1986 and now has three distinct loops that move passengers around Downtown Miami and adjoining areas with ease. The system is the largest and most successful downtown people mover system in the United States – a clear testament to the vision planning Miami-Dade and City of Miami officials had in the 1970’s. Much of the growth of Downtown Miami and the areas nearby, particularly Brickell can be attributed to the system.

Museum Park Station/ Feb 2019

As Miami’s downtown area has grown, more and more riders have used Metromover, which links onward to Metrorail (At the Government Center and Brickell stations) and Tri Rail via Metrorail (Orange Line) at the MIC and Metrorail/TriRail Transfer (Green Line) stations.  

Metromover carried over 30,000,000 passengers in 2019 and provides the type of rapid transit for people who work in Downtown Miami or the Brickell area that the CTA provides around the Loop in Chicago. For those who live within the urban core of Miami, in newly built condos Metromover and its onward links means you may not even need a car very often much like the large cities of the Northeast and Midwest. However, the system ONLY WORKS FOR THESE RESIDENTS. For the other 6,000,000 plus people in the metro area, effective mass transit is still an elusive thing.

I am not naive – changing the car culture of southeast Florida which so many of today’s leaders have grown up in, won’t happen overnight. Having landed on a short list of most desirable cities in American by many Europeans and South Americans, Miami would make a massive leap forward with an attempt to have public transit that mirrors big cities and business centers around the planet. Similarly, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach cannot truly be places of significance without a real effort at rail or streetcar mass transit that connects to Tri Rail and Brightline.

Until south Florida gets this right, the illusions of grandeur the area’s leaders have will in fact be delusions.

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