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Don’t build more transit if county can’t build transit riders

If Miami-Dade doesn’t start running transit more hours, more reliably and with growing rather than disappearing loads, talk of six new corridors should remain just that – talk.

Commissioners last week uncorked a new revenue stream, a transit tax district. State legislators also want to take taxes stolen from new transit and put the money back where it belongs. Commissioners too talk about a second transit sales tax to double receipts.

Those three could be major pieces of a puzzle to fund new transit. So could an as-yet-unknown public-private deal that would see the public later pay off up-front private investment. Other ideas float around to add new transit.

But why add any at all when riders are scrambling to get off what we have now? Not only are they exiting, but the departure rate is ever-faster.

Three years ago the system lost 3.8% of riders. The next year it lost 6.9%. Last year the loss was a staggering 9.6% – almost one of every ten riders.

Now comes a report for November, the most current out of the system, showing a plunge of 11.3% in riders from November 2016. That’s one rider out of nine bailing out.

And while 7.2% left Metrorail in November compared with November 2016, that’s the good news. 12.7% got off the bus. And Metromover, which is absolutely free, lost 13.3% of riders from November 2016.

While this newspaper for decades has called for more mass transit, in a way it’s good as we watch use plunge that officials moved so slowly to add on, because the Smart plan to do that will only be smart if we can not only build it but get people to ride it.

So far, the Smart plan has targeted six corridors but mostly not locked in routes. The modes of transit – bus or train – are vague. No timetable to act exists. Agreements to proceed are nil. And while we just got a tax district along the routes, the mayor correctly recommends that taxes not kick in until transit routes do.

If Smart plan transit were compared to a morning commute, we’d have gotten as far as waking up and are now rolling out of bed. We haven’t even brushed our teeth or had breakfast, much less left home.

It’s hard enough to pay for new transit without today’s fare box getting emptier and emptier. Crowded as the highways are, former transit riders find the frustrating and ever-slower drives preferable to a bus, train or even free Metromover.

If you can’t get transit veterans – many of whom ride free or at discounts – aboard, something is very wrong.

What’s wrong is clear: buses and rail cars are creaky and dirty; they don’t run often enough because so many are broken that we can’t get enough on the road; rude drivers don’t stick to schedules; absent drivers mean buses don’t come often enough; we don’t run 24 hours, seven days frequently enough to serve; and the system subsequently gets a rotten reputation.

That’s a damning indictment.

The good news is that we can fix it all if we have the will and the unity, because we can find money to repair everything that’s wrong – and enough to do the heavy sales job with the public to show the fixes and get riders back aboard.

It’s perfectly true that our present system is too skimpy to blanket the county. Transit must go everywhere to multiply its impact – you can’t ride Metrorail or Metromover to most booming areas because they don’t go there, and buses alone won’t do the job. So we need the Smart plan.

But it’s only really smart if today’s core operations function fully and carry reasonable loads to link into the six new Smart legs. And that’s not happening.

Some solutions are on the way, with new Metrorail cars – too slowly – entering service as they’re built and tested, and new buses coming. Those will add to quality and reliability, as well as give us functional equipment to run more often.

But at least three more steps are vital:

1. We need a transit union contract that ends inordinate absences – more than 22% every day – and inordinate spending. The old contract has lapsed. The new one will come before commissioners, who need courage to put public need ahead of votes and campaign contributions. Coming term limits should make that possible.

2. The county needs to spend enough now to run the system 24/7. People in Miami-Dade work, play and move around all hours. The more often and reliably transit runs, the more it’s used. Fares won’t support most of that extra service – they never do, anywhere – so government must put up operating money now, even if it means putting aside less for future routes. Until use builds up, don’t build up transit.

3. To make all of those steps impactful, the county must gin up an all-out campaign to promote transit use and get people to get back aboard what we have. A Fastrack Institute-created team that spent months studying transit innovation here looked at all sorts of high tech and found that the fastest way to get traffic flowing is to get people into mass transit and carpooling.

That use-transit campaign must be broad, deep and creative. It must range from advertising to motivational speakers, promotional gimmicks to premiums and prizes – anything to get fannies back into transit seats. Transit has to be not just necessary but also trendy. That campaign will only succeed if the gains it hypes are real and palpable.

We can debate all day which tax methods will best fund new lines that we all want. Getting that transit growth fast is vital.

But if we aren’t moving even faster to get people aboard what we have, the market for transit will dry up before much new can get rolling.

November saw 7 million total Miami-Dade transit rides. In November 2007, when nobody was yet talking about road congestion, we had nearly 9.5 million. So in 10 years we dumped 2.5 million monthly rides – about 40,000 persons daily – out of mass transit and onto roads as population also grew.

The Fastrack study was on target: the quickest way to cut road congestion is to get riders back onto transit. Some would return eventually if routes went more places. But far more would return right now if present routes ran more reliably and frequently.

We shouldn’t build transit if we can’t build transit riders.

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