Is the Haskins/Sarnoff Election Runoff a Street Car Referendum?

STREETWISE

Streetcar plan’s fate may ride on runoff

BY LARRY LEBOWITZ
streetwise@MiamiHerald.com

Tuesday’s runoff election between incumbent Linda Haskins and challenger Marc Sarnoff for the Miami City Commission District 2 seat comes at a critical juncture for the proposed $200 million Streetcar project.

Haskins, who finished second in the seven-candidate field, supports the proposed trolley.

Sarnoff, who was the No. 1 vote-getter in the Nov. 7 general election, opposes the Streetcar.

He sees it as a whole lot of sizzle but not a lot of steak, another ”legacy building” project for Mayor Manny Diaz that will draw much needed money away from necessary city services. Sarnoff worries about what will happen to the overhead electric lines if we suffer a direct hurricane hit.

Sarnoff believes the city could better improve mobility — at a much lower price tag — developing a fleet of hybrid buses that could circulate in the same areas. Hybrids, he said, would give the city more flexibility to alter routes in the event of accidents, construction and fluid growth patterns than a fixed-rail train system.

Haskins, however, sees the Streetcar as a major part of a much larger vision for Miami’s future, a vehicle to link emerging neighborhoods with stores, museums, restaurants, parks, arts and employment centers from the Design District and the University of Miami/Jackson Memorial Hospital medical campus to the downtown core.

And Haskins believes that Sarnoff’s bus-centric plan won’t solve the mobility problem because large segments of the population — more affluent, better educated — who might forsake their cars for a fast, safe, reliable trolley would never get on a bus.

Haskins wants the city to not only develop the Streetcar system, but to feed it with local circulator buses similar in size and scale to the Coral Gables trolleys, which are really hybrid buses tarted up to look like trains.

The seat that Haskins and Sarnoff are vying for is only one of five on the commission. But it’s a symbolically important one for the Streetcar.

The original Streetcar plans were being pushed primarily by the mayor and former District 2 Commissioner Johnny Winton.

Before Winton’s drunken fall from grace, the Streetcar was pretty much confined to District 2, running on a north-south alignment from Northeast 41st Street in the Design District, through Midtown Miami and Wynwood, and then circulating into downtown on streets and avenues not currently served by the elevated Metromover.

But late last year, city planners were instructed to add an east-west spur that would run largely along the 20th Street corridor out to the Civic Center/Jackson Memorial Hospital district.

This new spur would not only provide additional access to the emerging redevelopment plans for the University of Miami medical center, but additional political cover as well.

The new route runs through Allapattah, which is represented by Commissioner Angel Gonzalez, and Overtown, represented by Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones.

With low voter turnout expected — there’s nothing else on the ballot and it’s the Tuesday before Thanksgiving — it’s hard to call the Haskins vs. Sarnoff race a referendum on the Streetcar.

But it will sure make things interesting at Dinner Key, especially if Sarnoff wins. Because the Streetcar proposal isn’t going to become less controversial in the coming months.

It’s not set in stone, but city staff and its Streetcar consultants are hoping to brief commissioners and the mayor in the next couple of weeks on a public-private financing model that has no track record — all puns intended — with North American transit systems.

The concept: One team of firms would design, build, finance, operate and maintain the Streetcar and would be repaid over a 30-year, or longer, period.

While a growing number of American communities are considering similar public-private partnerships to pay for big-ticket infrastructure projects like bridges, tunnels and toll roads, no modern-era train or transit system has been built this way.

City staff and the consultants are looking for the commission’s approval to start short-listing the likely firms that would compete for the Streetcar gig early next year and then let them bid for the job in late 2007 or in early 2008.

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