Miami-Dade County’s plan to waive $9 million in fares during the last six weeks of the year went public on a Friday when the transit agency posted about it on social media as part of an upcoming overhaul of county bus routes.
Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said she learned about the countywide free-fare promotion three days later, when a reporter asked her about it.
“We’ll get back to you,” Levine Cava told the Miami Herald on the morning of Oct. 23.
On Tuesday, the mayor offered her first detailed explanation of how she could be so in the dark about what may be the costliest transit promotion in county history.
A day earlier, on Monday, she suspended her Transportation and Public Works director, Eulois Cleckley, for two weeks for what she described as his unauthorized decision to suspend all transit fares for the six weeks after the county launches its new Better Bus routes.
Levine Cava said the proposal wasn’t broached with her, and that her budget office hadn’t signed off on how Miami-Dade would make up what’s expected to be $9 million in lost fare revenue.
“I’m always interested in free fare. I’ve been pushing the concept of free fare for the rollout of new [transit] corridors. So the idea of free fares is definitely part of my program,” Levine Cava said in an interview after a ribbon cutting at a public housing complex Tuesday afternoon. “But this specific free fare? No, I had not been briefed about that.”
Levine Cava still supports free fares
Cleckley could not be reached for comment, and the Department of Transportation and Public Works has not responded to an inquiry about who made the decision behind the Oct. 20 announcement of free fares. Levine Cava said the free-fare plan will move ahead with her support.
Levine Cava said that while she didn’t know about the plan to pause fares for six weeks starting Nov. 13, the idea was broached in meetings with staff in her 29th Floor suite of offices in the Stephen P. Clark Center.
“His department had really developed a plan around free transit,” Levine Cava said. “And they had apparently, in planning calls with my team, mentioned it as a possibility, but not as a certainty. Our communications team was very involved in trying to think through rolling it out.”
The Better Bus plan, given final approval by county commissioners in July, eliminates about a quarter of the county’s bus stops, reworks dozens of routes, and expands on-demand shuttles to increase arrivals on popular commuting routes and eliminate service on some low-ridership bus lines.
Eliminating fares could mitigate some of the frustration that’s expected when the new routes launch on Nov. 13 as passengers navigate a reworked transit map and new names for existing routes. By waiving Metrorail fares, too, the idea behind the free-fare promotion is also to encourage people who don’t ride transit to try what’s being billed as a vastly improved system.
No plan for replacing lost revenue
Levine Cava said the county’s Office of Management and Budget didn’t vet the free-fare plan, which was announced about a month after commissioners approved the $390 million budget for the transit system.
She said there’s no plan yet for what revenue will cover the added expense, except for spare dollars within Transportation and Public Works to cover surprise costs and hope that the free fares will lure more paying customers after Jan. 1.
Jeffery Mitchell, head of the county’s transit union, called the fare-free plan a mistake. He said he expects a repeat of problems during the 15 months when transit fares were suspended in Miami-Dade and across the country in 2020 and 2021 as a pandemic relief and safety measure.
The free air-conditioned buses and Metrorail trains became day-long places to sleep for people seeking a place to rest, he said.
Mitchell also sees the expense as wasting money for a transit system that needs it. “The whole idea of letting people ride for free makes no sense,” he said. “That’s $9 million you’re going to lose.”