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Miami-Dade County

Unable to expand Metrorail, Miami leaders hope China can fix their transit woes

The Chinese government wants to help Miami-Dade spend billions of dollars expanding rail, and the communist regime has found a receptive audience in local elected leaders.

Maurice A. Ferré, a former Miami mayor, this spring registered to lobby for a magnetic-levitation rail line backed by the Chinese government. His son, Dr. Maurice R. Ferré, owns a share in a Florida company set up to pursue a “maglev” project in Miami and beyond.

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In April, both Ferrés brought a Chinese delegation to County Hall to meet with Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez and aides about constructing a maglev line on Northwest 27th Avenue to connect Metrorail with Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens. The Chinese are pitching maglev as a cheaper alternative to Metrorail, though a county study last year reached the opposite conclusion.

Next month Miami Gardens Mayor Oliver Gilbert, in his role as chairman of a county transportation board, plans to lead a delegation of elected officials and transit administrators on an Asian trip to see maglev systems in China and Japan, including a facility producing the trains pitched at the Ferré meeting with Gimenez.

It’s part of a tax-funded trip by the Transportation Planning Organization to showcase transit options in Asia, with stops in Hong Kong, Shenzhen and other sites in China, as well as in Tokyo.

“I think there’s a value in seeing how technology works with people, and not just on paper,” said Gilbert, who is running for County Commission in 2020. “I think there’s a value in seeing how it moves people, and experiencing it.”

A “maglev” train, which is short for magnetic levitation, crosses a bridge in Tokyo. A delegation from Broward and Miami-Dade is traveling to Japan and China to explore maglev and other transit options for South Florida. TORU YAMANAKA AFP/Getty Images

In Miami and Miami Beach, elected officials and industry lobbyists are awaiting disclosure of a transit proposal prepared by casino giant Genting to build a county transit line linking both cities over the MacArthur Causeway, according to multiple sources briefed on Genting’s plans. Genting owns property on the Miami waterfront that would be used for the new transit line.

Genting already has an agreement with Miami-Dade to take over the Omni Metromover stop, giving the Malaysian resort company a leg up over competitors eager to collect millions of dollars a year to operate the long-delayed “baylink” connection to the beach.

Details of the proposal aren’t known, including whether Genting wants to use Chinese-made rail technology in Miami. But the company, which has business ties to China, has already shown its interest in that kind of venture. In 2018, Genting assisted the Gimenez administration in setting up a stop at a Chinese train factory during a trip to Asia, and two lobbyists who work with Genting accompanied Gimenez on the tour. Later in that trip, Gimenez said he talked with the head of Genting about an investment in a new baylink system.

Miami-Dade’s Transportation Department did not respond to a records request seeking a Genting proposal, citing exemptions to state sunshine laws for “unsolicited” proposals.

Unsolicited proposals give private companies the chance to propose tax-funded projects to local governments, which have the option of rejecting the offer or inviting competing bids. Though described as unsolicited, proposers are free to discuss potential projects with government officials ahead of submitting their plans.

The potential for a Chinese venture on the MacArthur and 27th Avenue would give industrial arms of the communist regime a central role in building Miami-Dade’s first significant transit expansion since Metrorail service began in 1984.

While Miami-Dade added about two miles of Metrorail track in 2012 to brings trains to Miami International Airport, the county has failed to pursue the new lines to the beach or Miami Gardens touted to voters during the 2002 referendum that created a half-percent sales tax for transportation.

Money has been the main anchor on expansion, with county leaders last year saying Miami-Dade couldn’t afford to extend Metrorail south to Homestead without imploding potential expansion budgets elsewhere in the transit system.

Last year, the county’s Transportation Planning Organization cast a divided vote to approve an express bus system for South Dade instead of Metrorail, citing the high cost of expanding the train system further into the suburbs. The China-backed entities pursuing Miami-Dade transit projects are offering technology that executives say can save the local government significant dollars.

A state-funded analysis of the 27th Avenue corridor in October estimated extending elevated Metrorail north to Miami Gardens would cost about $1.4 billion, with another $400 million for land acquisition.

Ferré, a six-term former Miami mayor and longtime advocate of expanding mass transit in the region, said the Chinese executives are pitching a smaller budget. That’s based on lower maintenance tied to lighter trains and less wear-and-tear on trains that are suspended magnetically a few inches off tracks. China’s significantly lower labor costs also could be crucial.

“If they’re allowed to manufacture this stuff in China and ship it over, they could do it for half the price,” Ferré said.

Washington requires transit systems be American built to qualify for federal funds. China’s primary train company, CRRC, is assembling subway trains for Philadelphia and Los Angeles in the factory it constructed in Boston to provide trains for that city as well.

Last fall, an analysis commissioned by the Transportation Planning Organization gave a thumbs down to maglev as an option for 27th Avenue, noting only six operating systems exist in the world and that it’s too soon to determine how much one would cost to run in Miami.

Building a maglev system, the analysis concluded, would not save Miami-Dade money. The summary said existing maglev lines in Asia cost between $145 million and $250 million a mile to build, compared to about $140 million for elevated Metrorail.

Maglev trains are best known for speeds topping 300 mph, creating speedy commuting options between cities. The Chinese want Miami-Dade to consider a slower version of maglev designed for urban systems that only go from neighborhood to neighborhood.

Miami-Dade could also pursue a longer maglev train that runs into Broward. The July 8-12 trip to Asia by the Transportation Planning Organization includes members of the board’s Broward counterpart. Both boards oversee federal funds for local transportation projects.

Richard Blattner, a Hollywood city commissioner who is chairman of the Broward Metropolitan Planning Organization, is also making the Asia trip. He said there is interest in creating an elevated monorail system along 27th Avenue that could run into Broward, and part of the trip is designed to see which transit mode would work best.

“The focus of this is a new form of monorail,” he said. “Whether that involves maglev or not, I don’t know.”

A draft itinerary released Friday shows stops in Japan and China dedicated to high-speed bullet trains and monorail systems, as well as a maglev facility in Hunan, China that is part of the rail company represented by the Ferrés.

Gimenez, who doesn’t serve on the transportation board, is not part of the July trip to Asia. He made a similar tour of transit options in China and Japan last year as part of a county trade mission. County officials said Genting arranged for Gimenez to tour a CRRC train factory in March 2018, joined by two lobbyists working with Genting who also played key roles in the mayor’s 2016 reelection campaign.

Jesse Manzano-Plaza, a Genting lobbyist, and Ralph Garcia-Toledo, a lobbyist and county subcontractor who works with Genting, both joined Gimenez for the CRRC visit in Zhuzhou, China. County trade director Manny Gonzalez, who organized the trip, said Genting “facilitated” the mayor’s tour of the CRRC facility.

A Genting spokesman did not respond to a request for comment on a potential transit proposal in Miami-Dade. Gimenez also issued a “No comment” Friday when asked if he had seen a Genting proposal for the Baylink route.

However, Gimenez said last year that the topic came up during the 2018 trip to Asia, which included a reception on a cruise ship docked in Hong Kong with Genting Group Chairman Lim Kok Thay. Gimenez said the Genting executive was interested in investing in a baylink system, which would connect the company’s Miami properties with the heart of Miami-Dade’s hotel industry in Miami Beach.

In 2011, Genting paid $236 million for the Miami Herald’s former offices and printing plant next to the MacArthur on the Miami waterfront. The Herald building was demolished but Genting has so far failed to win the change in state gambling laws needed to build a planned casino resort there.

In 2017, Genting won a county contract to build a hotel over a county bus stop next to the former Herald property. The deal also gives Genting a hand in running the adjoining Adrienne Arsht Center Metromover station, with the casino company renovating the station and taking over maintenance of it.

The route between Miami and Miami Beach is one of six commuting corridors that make up the SMART Plan, an effort started in 2016 to redo the county’s transit plans for the routes. The county had already spent $80 million studying 27th Avenue, the beach link and other SMART routes but those reports sat on a shelf so long they’ve become obsolete, according to a 2018 audit studying expenditures through 2011.

Consultants have not yet finished their county-funded study of the beach corridor, part of Miami-Dade’s $24 million budget for SMART consultants, with Florida expected to spend roughly the same. Even with the high budgets, elected leaders are not wedded to consultants’ recommendations.

The Transportation Planning Organization did not ask state consultant WSP USA to present its findings in December when the board brushed aside the recommendation for Metrorail. Instead, board members voted for a broader endorsement of elevated rail, a decision designed to include maglev and other train options.

Adie Tomer, who leads the Metropolitan Infrastructure Initiative for the Brookings think tank in Washington, said efforts to pursue pricey, cutting-edge rail projects for Miami’s suburbs risk delaying simpler fixes, like removing street parking to create dedicated bus lanes to speed commuters downtown.

“You don’t need to always be studying these things,” he said. “Is the right move to invest more in expensive capital infrastructure, regardless of what that technology may be?”

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