Vivek Sawhney didn’t need free fares to lure him into a Metrorail ride on Monday, and the 28-year-old medical student said he’s surprised more people don’t consider Miami-Dade County transit a good deal.
“I think it’s great,” Sawhney said of the seven-week fare holiday that began that morning with the introduction of a sweeping rerouting of bus lines countywide. “It would be awesome if more people rode.”
The stakes are high for a ridership boost as Mayor Daniella Levine Cava implements the $9 million free-fare plan to boost the Better Bus Network, the most extensive reworking of bus routes in decades.
While not expected to expand service in the short-term, the redesign shifts operators and vehicles to higher ridership routes while retiring others. Combined with eliminating hundreds of bus stops, the plan is aimed at creating a more efficient and useful network of bus lines to create shorter waits for more riders.
Most of the county’s more than 100 bus routes changed on Monday. Some were mostly a name change as Miami-Dade retired using letters for bus routes in favor of all numerical titles. More than two dozen were eliminated. Many were redesigned to speed the time needed to get from one end to the other.
The changes, posted on signs attached to every bus stop and amplified by a county media campaign, left riders adjusting to new commuting routes the day of the launch.
“I know from the calls I’ve received that a lot of you are anxious,” Commissioner Marleine Bastien said at a press conference on the Better Bus launch. “It’s an upgraded system ... Give it time.”
For Maria Torres, 86, quicker bus arrivals would mean easier grocery shopping. Torres said she took a bus from Miami Beach to downtown Miami to get away from higher food prices in her home city. “It’s too much money in Miami Beach,” she said at a bus stop outside the Stephen P. Clark Government Center.
The regular bus Torres rides, the S, was retired on Monday. It was renamed the 100, with buses scheduled to arrive twice as quickly in the morning and evening rush hours . Torres said she hadn’t noticed a change on arrival times yet, but she’s ready. “I wait too much,” she said.
For David Vergel, a 26-year-old student at Florida International University, the new routes mean longer walks. He lives near the retired E route, and the county’s Better Bus trip planner calculates an afternoon commute home to the Sunny Isles Beach area will take about 80 minutes, up from 55 minutes when the E was running. That’s mostly because of an estimated 18-minute walk to his neighborhood.
“I will still take the buses, for now, until I buy a car,” he said. “It’s still the most affordable way to get home.”
Some riders on Monday complained of crammed buses as the free fares began and regular passengers were forced into consolidated routes. The county’s transit app didn’t have the updated routes when the new system launched, but a spokesperson said that glitch was fixed by the afternoon. The new system had its fans, too, with shorter waits making transfers less of a logistical hassle.
While the Better Bus launch doesn’t affect Metrorail schedules, the free fares apply to all transit modes through the end of the year. The promotion, expected to cost $9 million in lost fare revenue, had a chaotic launch. The Department of Transportation and Public Works announced the plan on Oct. 20, only to have Levine Cava suspend Director Eulois Cleckley a week later after saying she hadn’t approved the costly idea.
Cleckley’s two-week unpaid suspension ended Monday but he was absent when Levine Cava joined Bastien and other county leaders for the morning press conference outside the Stephen P. Clark Government Center. Levine Cava said her office was aware of the free-fares strategy under discussion before it was announced, and that she endorsed the idea after it was announced as a year-end enticement for new riders. “Happy Holidays, Miami-Dade County,” she said at the press conference.
Her administration hasn’t said how it plans to pay for what it describes as a surprise loss of $9 million in revenue from Transit’s $390 million budget, except that the hope is Better Bus will attract more paying passengers once fares resume Jan. 1.
For Sawhney, the seven-minute Metrorail ride that takes him from his apartment in downtown Miami to the UM medical campus by the Civic Center station is an easy choice. He said it takes him about 20 minutes when the walking is added.
“It’s the fastest way to school. And parking is super expensive,” he said, explaining why he’s not driving his car this morning. “I only use it to visit my parents in Boca.”