Miami is world famous for its palm trees, beaches, entertainment, and global business, but with its growth has come congestion. To remedy traffic, Miami-Dade County’s Department of Transportation and Public Works (DTPW) is working with partners to plot a new transportation and mobility vision for the future.
The Department’s 40-year vision, known as the SMART Program, is set to address both short and long-term challenges. That vision, and the funding behind it, was part of what made the job attractive when the Department’s Director and CEO Eulois Cleckley came aboard about one year ago.
“When I got approached about the opportunity, I started to do a lot more research to determine the underlying causes of what was transpiring down in Miami, and specifically, Miami-Dade County, and what I learned is that the region was growing, but that growth was also bringing transportation, housing, and economic challenges,” he explains. “Having worked to address these issues during my career, I thought it was a great opportunity for me to come in and help this community along with our Mayor and Commissioners. More importantly, with the surtax that was passed 20 years ago, we have an opportunity to pivot and expand public transit and mobility in ways that can be transformational.”
Growing and Sustainable
In addition to the SMART Program, the Department also began its push to lower emissions, beginning with an order for 75 40-foot Proterra ZX5 battery-electric buses and chargers. The first buses from this order have already been delivered and are in service. The electric buses will continue to arrive throughout the rest of 2022 and into early 2023.
“We are moving forward to implement the County's climate action strategy, which is focusing on ways to reduce emissions and ultimately building a resilient and sustainable community,” says Cleckley. “We are excited to add the Proterra buses to our fleet and have another 100 60-foot battery-electric buses under procurement now. Once that procurement is completed and the buses are delivered, 10 percent of our fleet will be electric.”
The ZX5, Proterra’s fifth-generation vehicle, features faster acceleration, “industry-leading” gradeability, up to 738 kilowatts hours of energy, and more than 300 miles of range per charge. The design of the ZX5 stores the batteries underneath and outside of the passenger compartment, creating a lower center of gravity for the greatest stability and safety. Miami’s buses can be fully charged in 20 to 40 minutes and feature power outlets for each passenger and onboard Wi-Fi for customer convenience, according to Cleckley.
To charge the buses, the DTPW has already retrofitted three of its bus garages with 25 chargers each for a total of 75 Proterra chargers.
“We just completed that project recently, so we will have the appropriate infrastructure to help support the charging of these buses long term,” added Cleckley. “Shortly, we are also going to be moving forward with a new bus maintenance facility that will be in the south portion of the county to help maintain, as well as charge, the additional buses we are procuring at this time. That facility will be brand new and state-of-the-art, so we are very excited about that project.”
Funding for part of the Proterra procurement came from a grant of $19.8 million from the Volkswagen Clean Air Act Civil settlement, with the DTPW planning on continuing to pursue other funding opportunities to continue its path to a more sustainable future.
“We are excited and appreciative for those additional funds, and we also continue to go after federal grant programs to try to receive additional monies to purchase more electric vehicles,” says Cleckley. “We also do contribute local funds as well to purchase these vehicles. So, in the long run, we really plan on leveraging a variety of sources to continue transitioning our Metrobus fleet.”
Cleckley explains that while the procurement for 100 60-foot buses is specifically set for Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), the 40-foot Proterra vehicles will provide service in areas where the Department sees its highest ridership.
“Our first set of buses will be on used on routes where we see some of our highest ridership — Route 1 and Route 9. We’re also looking at some of our routes that go toward the beach,” says Cleckley. “It will really be an opportunity for us to showcase these new buses in the downtown area, but down the road, we’ll begin to spread the buses out on other routes to see where else they may work the best.”
Cleckley adds the Department has been testing the buses to make sure the batteries are meeting their expected goals as far as charging duration and range. He also explains the testing and ramp up stage for the buses has been important to help the operators themselves get used to driving the new buses so they can maximize their usage.
“We've been utilizing this testing period and placing several in service to iron out those details,” says Cleckley.
The Right Timing
When asked about the timing of the DTPW’s decision to electrify, Cleckley says the Department, and the industry in general, is now benefiting from the technological evolution of battery-electric buses over the last 15-plus years.
“We are serious about being environmentally friendly and sustainable in the communities we serve, so it’s obvious we can’t continue to rely on diesel-powered buses,” Cleckley explains. “I would say that if we had this type of technology 15 years ago, we would have started purchasing electric buses sooner. But I think it’s only been recently that the industry has really gotten to a point where they can provide us with a solid product that can meet all the needs we want to be met.”
Cleckley adds this is especially true as it looks to add 60-foot battery-electric buses for its BRT routes.
“For more unique buses that are being used for specific services, such as BRT, I think the technology and design of the buses has now gotten to where we need it to be to successfully provide our passengers the most efficient and comfortable service we can provide,” he adds.
Cleckley explains working with DTPW’s local utility to get power to its three depots and to get the chargers installed — a challenge many transit agencies face when electrifying — went off without a hitch. The biggest challenge, he says, has been the lasting impact of the COVID pandemic.
“COVID really disrupted a lot of supply chains, not only during our procurement, but also during the manufacturing of these vehicles,” Cleckley explains. “Fortunately, I think Proterra and the DTPW team really worked well together to manage and mitigate the number of delays we have been subjected to due to supply chain shortages, so we can continue to receive our vehicles in a timely manner. I would say that's probably been the biggest challenge for us, but it’s been handled well.”
The timing for DTPW was also right because of the Volkswagen and surtax funding, as well as the historic funding investment from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
“It’s definitely the biggest investment into transit and infrastructure, quite frankly ever,” says Cleckley. “Many of us in the industry are excited about this federal opportunity. There are also additional discretionary grant programs that we're going to try to take advantage of as well. And, there have been increases in the funding limits for existing programs, primarily focused on capital transit projects.”
Miami has a lot of capital transit projects in the works, thanks to its SMART Program – a 40-year pro-forma, which is boldly moving several projects forward in parallel.
Once completed, the SMART Program is expected to:
- Reduce transportation-related emissions.
- Significantly increase transit ridership.
- Improve travel time, safety, and reliability.
Positive impacts from the SMART Program are anticipated in the following areas:
- New opportunities for Transit Oriented Developments (TOD’s) along SMART Program corridors (more housing, retail and office developments that are near transit stations).
- An expanded and interconnected network of premium transit services that connect to more key destinations.
- Improved reliability and on-time performance as the existing transit network is optimized to better feed the SMART Program transit corridors.
- More job opportunities in the transportation industry as new transit corridors are planned, designed, constructed, and implemented.
- Real-time arrival and departure information signage at transit stations.
“It’s our number one capital program that we have to implement,” says Cleckley. “We very fondly and purposely call it the SMART Program, because we have the opportunity during the next decade to really implement projects that will dramatically expand our mass transit system and mobility options.”
The SMART Program is currently focused several corridors, including:
- The South Corridor: A 20-mile BRT system that extends from the Dadeland South Metrorail Station to the SW 344th Street Park-and-Ride/Transit Terminal.
- The Beach Corridor or BayLink: Planned as a seamless, one-seat extension of the Metromover connecting residents, visitors, and businesses with Miami Beach, accelerating jobs and economic opportunities.
- The East-West Corridor: An 11-mile BRT line on dedicated transit-only lanes along SR836/Dolphin Expressway from the Miami Intermodal Center adjacent to the Miami International Airport to Southwest Eighth Street at Southwest 147th Avenue next to the Tamiami Terminal.
- The Northeast Corridor: A heavy rail line that will run on Florida East Coast Railway tracks for about 14.5 miles and include six stations around the corridor to go from downtown Miami to the Aventura station currently being built by Brightline.
“Depending on each project and how quickly we can get through the environmental processes and other markers along the way, our initial estimate to have all the corridors completed and in operations is about 10 years, so we can see real transformation in the region in the next decade,” says Cleckley. “Our aim is to have some of the corridors operational much sooner.”
Aside from the transformative projects on the horizon, Miami is also seeing its ridership beginning to bounce back.
“We have been increasing ridership across all our modes — Metrobus, Metrorail, and Metromover, as well as paratransit — by one to two percentage points per month,” says Cleckley. “Right now, we are at approximately 80 percent of pre-pandemic levels, and it’s been really good to see ridership continue to trend in the right direction.”
To focus on increasing ridership, the DTPW is currently working on its Better Bus Network plan, which will focus on the agency’s current bus routes and condense and realign the routes to create more frequency so riders can get where they are going with minimal delays. It is the first time DTPW has undertaken a complete reimagining of its bus network in nearly 40 years.
“With these significant improvements, we will have more households closer to high frequency bus lines, as well as almost double the number of opportunities for people who are low income to have better access to transportation and job options,” says Cleckley. “It will help more of our population reach a higher number of jobs within less than 30 minutes from where they currently live.”
These transformational programs and projects are helping to drive the Department’s new vision for the future of transportation and mobility in Miami-Dade County.