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Miami on board for city streetcar project

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17 March 2004

Miami will consider building a streetcar line to link downtown with neighborhoods east of Interstate 95 that are undergoing a redevelopment boom.

Miami officials want to build a streetcar rail line to connect downtown with the city's resurgent neighborhoods to the north, citing the need to provide thousands of expected new urban dwellers an alternative to using their cars.

Miami Mayor Manny Diaz believes the city can build an initial ''demonstration'' phase relatively quickly and inexpensively, with streetcars powered by overhead electrical wires up and running within three years from the start of construction.

The city has hired an engineering firm to study the light-rail line's feasibility and select possible routes. The idea is to finance the project with the city's share of Miami-Dade County's half-cent sales tax, projected at slightly less than $10 million a year. That would save considerable time by forgoing complex requests for federal funding.

''I'm told that it is doable,'' Diaz said in an interview. ``It has to get done. It's something we need very much. Other cities have done it. If we have to kick-start it, we will.''

The city streetcar line would be planned and built separately from the county's ambitious transit plan, which is focused in large part on expansion of Metrorail's expensive heavy-rail commuter lines into the suburbs.

Instead, the city's light-rail line would be a local neighborhood service, traveling at ground level and stopping every few blocks, planners said. It would share roadways and lanes with automobiles, making it relatively simple to build and easy for pedestrians to board. To enhance mobility, streetcar systems are typically designed so that traffic lights turn green as streetcars approach.

`DEFINITELY WORKS'

Several major U.S. cities -- including Portland, Ore., Denver and San Diego -- have built similar systems in the past few years.

''This is a technology that definitely works,'' said Lilia Medina, the city's assistant transportation coordinator, who is overseeing the project. ``We just want to make sure there is a ridership for it.''

Miami and Miami Beach have approved a separate streetcar line, dubbed BayLink, that would connect downtown Miami and South Beach. But that project is part of the county plan and is unlikely to happen for a decade at least. The city streetcar line would connect with BayLink.

WITHIN BOUNDARIES

The decision to go it solo on a streetcar line underscores city officials' increasing sense of urgency about expanding public transit inside Miami's boundaries. Developers have broken ground on thousands of condo units and apartments from the Brickell district north through Edgewater and the city's Upper East Side, where a surge in home rehabilitation has revitalized once-deteriorated neighborhoods.

But the development boom has raised worries about the effects of increased auto traffic on already congested roadways like Biscayne Boulevard.

Moreover, Diaz said, the success of the city's redevelopment will depend on linking different sections together -- making it easy, say, for residents of Little Haiti or the Buena Vista historic neighborhood to take a streetcar to work, the new Performing Arts Center or shops and restaurants opening up along the Biscayne Boulevard corridor.

''It's not just the traffic,'' the mayor said. ``The connectivity of neighborhoods is important.''

POSSIBLE ROUTES

Possible routes include Biscayne Boulevard, Miami Avenue and Northeast Second Avenue, Medina said. How far north the first phase reaches will depend on how much the city can afford to build on its own, she said.

Typically, streetcar lines cost around $24 million per mile to build, but the figure can vary depending on local conditions, said Wilson Fernandez, a county transportation planner.

The city's eventual goal is to reach the northern boundary at 87th Street -- about five miles from downtown -- and later perhaps to build a second line extending west along Calle Ocho through Little Havana and Flagami to Coral Gables.

Ironically, that route would replicate a streetcar line, built in the 1920s and long-ago dismantled, that once extended from Miami Beach to Coral Gables.

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