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Metromover's new legs would be very shaky

July 2, 1986

The same wizards who gave us Metrorail now want to spend $240 million to expand the peoplemover to both ends of downtown Miami.

They foresee a day when the cute little tram is packed to the gills with commuters and shoppers. They foresee a time in the next century when future Dade Countians will look back and marvel at what visionaries we were.

More probably, they will look back and wonder: What kind of mushrooms were those folks eating?

The logic of taking an underutilized rail system and making it bigger is baffling, to put it kindly. Since the collective memory of the political establishment seems so short, let's re-examine Dade's sterling record of mass transit (using the term loosely).

Born of the best intentions, Metrorail is a proven Megaturkey. "The laughingstock of the nation," says Harvard transportation expert Jose Gomez-Ibanez. Building it cost $250 million more than promised; operating it now threatens to break the county budget. The ridership, though improving, remains a pitiful one-seventh of projections.

It's a clean, fast system butfor a variety of reasonscommuters avoid it in droves. This year taxpayers spent $32 million running a train for a measly 14,000 daily two-way riders.

If Metrorail were a horse, it would be shot.

Enter the Metromover, inaugurated to run a loop through downtown Miami and boost (we were promised) Metrorail's popularity. It's an adorable toy, except for one problem: Only 4,500 of 60,000 downtown workers are riding the darn thing.

You'd think we'd learn our lesson. Think again. Rep. William Lehman (normally a rational man), the Metro commission and downtown property owners (surprise!) love the idea of extending the Metromover south to Brickell Avenue and north to the Omni Mall.

What we now have is a government fully mobilized to turn disaster into catastrophe.

If you were a merchant and somebody offered to run a spiffy tram to your doorstep, wouldn't you say yes? Of course you would, especially if the state, the city and the feds were sucking up 90 percent of the tab. What's another $240 million when we've already spent four times that much on Metrorail?

Forget the fact that our buses are falling to pieces. Forget the fact that routes from needy neighborhoods have been cut back, thanks partly to Metrorail's huge deficits.

The trouble with the Metromover is that it benefits the downtown lunch crowd more than the people who truly need mass transit. It will make it convenient for some of us to hop a tram from the office to the Tofutti parlor, but meanwhile thousands need reliable transportation from their neighborhoods to their jobs.

In a strategic move to derail the Metromover expansion, the head of the U.S. Urban Mass Transit Administration, Ralph Stanley, said last week he would be willing to let Dade County spend its Metromover funds on buses.

It's an unprecedented offer, and a smart one. Buses are the first crucial link of any urban transit system; almost seven times as many people ride them as ride Metrorail. The $102 million already set aside for the Metro-mover extension is enough for 728 buses, a whole new fleet. This would be a radical step in the county's transportation sagaspending money on something people would actually use.

In defense of the dream, Metromover's proponents say the new downtown legs are necessary to meet the needs of future growth. Planners predict 25,000 peoplemover riders by the year 2000.

Only two things are certain about such predictions: If it's the cost, they underestimate. If it's the ridership, they overestimate.

They've never been right. They've never even been close.

But let's say this time they are. Twenty-five thousand riders for $240 millionthis is a bargain? Maybe so, if you own a bank on Brickell Avenue; maybe not, if you're standing on a hot street corner, hoping for a bus, any bus, that runs on time.

Dade taking furniture flap sitting down January 27, 1986 | Kick Ass: Selected Columns of Carl Hiaasen | Paint Rosario nattily naive, fiscally fickle February 2, 1987