For decades, Miami officials have tangled over whether and how to connect downtown Miami, which is on the mainland, with Miami Beach, which is on a barrier island on the other side of Biscayne Bay, via mass transit.
In recent years, officials have decided that the route should be a priority and that it should definitely go along the south side of the MacArthur Causeway. They have explored multiple technologies, including a “Personal Rapid Transit” pod-car, an experimental “trackless train,” and a magnetic levitation train. Now, the cities are considering a proposal for a monorail.
“This is the closest we’ve been in 30 years” to making the route a reality, said Chris Hodgkins, senior advisor for Meridiam, the infrastructure company that would serve as lead developer. “This is different than the trolley. This is different than the floating buses,” he said, jokingly ticking off myriad proposals that have been considered, then dismissed, over the decades.
Hodgkins is also the CEO of the Port of Miami Tunnel, an ambitious project that got 80% of trucks off of the streets. Genting, a Malaysian company, bought a landmark waterfront parcel in Downtown Miami (the former site of the Miami Herald office) in hopes of turning it into a casino. That ambition hasn’t come to fruition, but Genting, along with Aqualand Development, started a group called the Miami Beach Monorail Consortium, and in 2019 submitted an unsolicited proposal to build a monorail, with a station on its downtown property.
The county issued a request for proposals to open up the bidding process. That is when Meridiam came in. “We looked at proposals. We saw Aqualand and Genting had done its work,” Hodgkins said. Meridiam stepped in as the lead partner, with Genting and Aqualand in minority positions.
The consortium is the only group that ended up submitting a proposal in response to the RFP. According to its plan, the monorail would run for 3.45 miles on elevated track on the south side of the MacArthur Causeway, with two trains constantly operating, each holding up to 300 riders. Traveling at 50 mph, they could run 12 trips per hour. Fares have not been set, but would likely be about $5 per trip. Meridiam predicts the project could employ 3,000 people and be delivered in 2025.
On the beach side, it would stop on property at Fifth Street owned by the Florida Department of Transportation, possibly with another beach stop as well. On the mainland side, at the Genting property, a MetroMover extension could take people to MiamiCentral, where they could take a train to the airport. If the plan comes to fruition, it would accomplish a longtime goal: connecting the airport and the beach by rail.
In May, the Miami-Dade County Commission voted to advance the RFP, meaning that an evaluation committee can evaluate the proposal and its financials, negotiate with the consortium and come back to the commission with a recommendation. One such evaluation meeting is scheduled for Wednesday. In July, Gimenez’s team will return to the commission with a recommendation on how to proceed.
Hodgkins said it will cost $620M to build the monorail. A Miami Herald analysis determined the plan could cost up to $770M, which would be the entire cost if financed by the county, a Meridiam spokesperson said.
The consortium would turn over fare revenue — about $4M a year — to Miami-Dade, in exchange for payments of $59.4M per year over 30 years, with Meridiam and Genting making a 12% yearly return. The evaluation process will identify federal and state dollars that could be put toward the project.
Miami residents are skeptical of transit projects, especially after the county collected $3B over 20 years and built less than 3 miles of new rail. Taxpayers were also burned paying $2.6B for the Miami Marlins’ baseball stadium.
“Under the P3 model, we take the risk, so if we say we can build it for $620M, that’s the cost,” Hodgkins said. “We can’t come back in eight months and say ‘By the way, I don’t want to tell you, but it’s going to be $730M.'” “People are dubious of big public projects,” he acknowledged but pointed to his firm’s performance on the tunnel project, which was on time and under budget. “We’ve got to stop putting plans on the shelf. It’s 2020!”