The trust spending more than $100 million on a 20-mile Bus Rapid Transit line in South Dade refused last week to hear long-sought answers about how the corridor will work, saying meager responses to 28 questions asked last June finally arrived too late for thorough review.
Trust members ultimately asked to get the media presentation and written documents well ahead of a Nov. 29 meeting so staff could review them in detail beforehand. Some questioned whether the system will meet the Gold Standard of Bus Rapid Transit as was pledged when the project won approval.
While an earlier county presentation assured trust members that operations had been geared to the Gold Standard, under questioning Josenrique Cueto, the transportation department’s deputy director, acknowledged last week that until the trust raised the issue the department had never talked with the body overseeing that service standard about what was required to achieve it.
The Citizens’ Independent Transportation Trust, which safeguards the half-penny tax for transit, complained in July that the transportation department had kept it in the dark about operating plans for the South Dade corridor, though the tax is paying more than a third of the cost.
The trust in July was to discuss answers to 28 questions it sent to the transportation department in June. The department, however, said it couldn’t answer anything until September. The trust gave the county an extra month to do the job and then unanimously urged the county and the state, which is funding two-thirds of the new Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), to ensure that it “honors the prior commitments … to provide and maintain a true Institute for Transportation and Development Policy ‘Gold Standard BRT’ project.”
The trust heard in June that the transitway was not going to offer true Bus Rapid Transit all the time. The initial promise was a 60-minute ride each way with signal preemption parallel to US 1. But as trust member Robert Ruano asked how the BRT will cross 46 road intersections on the 14-station trip between Homestead and Dadeland, Alex Barrios, assistant director for construction of county transportation and public works, explained that BRT would not stop for cars crossing – but only going one direction. Buses north at morning rush hour wouldn’t stop for cars – but not buses going south. In the evening, the priorities would reverse, Mr. Barrios said. “The bus rapid transit service is in the direction of rush hour.”
Trust Executive Director Javier Betancourt at that time asked for full BRT service details. “We were sold on Gold Standard BRT and sometimes some of the things I hear don’t imply that this is Gold Standard any longer,” he said.
Mr. Ruano last week said signal preemption remains his major issue. “For me, there are still two things that I have a real issue with, which is the signalization at all times, the priority signalization both north and south, which it seems like they’re saying it’s not, and the then the scorecard [of the Gold Standard] which we specifically asked for and we’re told it’s for internal use, like we’re not supposed to get it…. We’ve asked for it and they don’t give it to us. Do we ask nicely here, or do we have a public records request for a document that the county has?”
Mr. Cueto told the trust that it could see the scorecard in a visual presentation, but trust members said they wanted a copy in their hands to study, not to view in a slide show.
“We believe the presentation is comprehensive and does answer each and every question that was raised at the June CITT meeting and hopefully satisfies the members of the trust,” Mr. Cueto said.
“Well, then that would be quite different than what the written answers were,” said a skeptical Robert Wolfarth, the trust’s new chairman. “From what I’ve personally seen from some of the answers I don’t think they’ve been completely answered yet.”
He asked that the county provide the video and written answers well in advance of the next meeting in four weeks and return to discuss them. Mr. Cueto told trust members they would get the answers and the video presentation in their in-boxes the next morning.
Transportation chief Eulois Cleckley, who is now suspended by the mayor for making all county transit free from Nov. 13 through the end of the year without asking her, pledged to the trust in July that the department “would be able to track towards that Gold Standard,” but trust members questioned whether just applying for gold certification – the highest level of transit held by only one US city – was sufficient.
Among the trust’s 28 questions about the service that Mr. Cleckley said that the department could not answer adequately then were the operating concept, whether either the Federal Transit Administration or the Florida Department of Transportation had approved of that concept, how gate crossings will work along the route, whether municipal trolleys that now use the South Dade Transitway will be able to use it once the BRT project begins, and the bus run times and average speeds planned for the route originally and how they will change.
After trust member Peggy Bell asked last week “Why has this taken four months when the staff said they could be ready in September?” Mr. Cueto responded that “the reason for the time requirement was the department after the discussion in June undertook a comprehensive and exhaustive process where we engaged ITDP, the organization which rates BRT systems, to fully understand – and it was the first time that had been done at the department – to fully understand how this project would rate.”
Also delaying the response, Mr. Cueto said, was that the county made the video presentation and then briefed “our partners in the project” at the Federal Transit Administration and the Florida Department of Transportation to be sure that what’s presented “is 100% accurate and is aligned with those funding partners.”