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Riding The Miami Metrorail (Pictures & Video)

September 22, 2008 By Matt Meltzer in Miami: Local News  | 15 Comments

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ABOVE: Inside a Metrorail car, passing through Downtown Miami. Photo by Miami Fever.

Ask your average Miamian what they think of the Metrorail and you typically get a look like you just asked them what they thought about the recent presidential election in Zimbabwe.

“Metrorail? You mean that thing up there?” they’ll say as they point to the massive cement overpass that hangs next to US-1. “How should I know? Nobody rides that thing.”

Such is the great joke in Miami-Dade County. Yeah, we’ve got a mass transit rail system. No, of course I haven’t taken it. That thing doesn’t go ANYWHERE. And while there are probably more people in Miami who have ridden the subway in Santo Domingo than have taken a trip on our much-maligned Metrorail, it can actually be a good form of public transportation. Yes, you read that right, and no, I am not losing my mind.

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The train to nowhere

The Metrorail, like so many public works projects in this city, began with good intentions. A mass transit system for a fast-growing city that would put us in the league of a New York or Boston in getting a large population around without clogging the roadways. But, like so many local projects down here, once the County Council got a hold of it, it ended up as an expensive, useless disaster.

The beginning of the Metrorail’s route seems to make some sense, running north up our most crowded street (South Dixie Highway) from the suburbs of Kendall and South Miami, through the University, Coconut Grove, and into downtown. A perfect first line for suburbanites commuting. But then, the system gets weird. Did they design it to go to the airport to help our residents and millions of tourists (some of whom get shot when they try driving to it), and to alleviate traffic there? Or maybe South Beach for the tourists? Or maybe the (then) new Dolphins Stadium up near the county line? No, no of course they didn’t. That might have made sense. And making sense is not the Miami way.

Who the hell designed this thing?!

What we got instead was a circuitous route snaking its way from Jackson Memorial Hospital up north through some areas that vaguely resemble South American Shanty Towns and ending up somewhere in the middle of Hialeah. Why, you ask? Well, the mayor of Hialeah at the time of the Metrorail’s route planning wanted to ensure that the train went to then-glamorous Hialeah Race Track. And in order to get from downtown to the track, the train had to snake through some neighborhoods that would make a guy from South Central think twice about getting out of his car. And since Hialeah had a large and powerful constituency, and the airport did not, we ended up with a train that runs to the track, and crooked cab drivers and an unreliable bus line to the airport. You can take a lok at the Metrorail’s route by following this link.

Now, instead of stops like “Orange Bowl” or “Miami International Airport” or “South Beach,” we have a train that goes to such in-demand locations as “Earlington Heights,” “Brownsville” and “Santa Clara” (bet you didn’t even know we had a Santa Clara in Dade, did you?). As such, the Metrorail is now basically the metal equivalent of a Seagull, flying overhead, making noise, and shitting on the people below who barely even notice it’s there.

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All the fun of mass transit without all those pesky people!

But despite the poor planning and even poorer execution, you can actually use the Metrorail as a viable form of transportation in this city. Once you have recovered from your fit of roll-on-the-floor laughing, you may continue to read on. Given the spike in gas prices, Miami’s unrelenting traffic, and the city’s new tendency to focus on developing an urban core, we may be finding that the Metrorail becomes more and more of a useful tool. Stop laughing. I’m serious.

You know how in some cities where people actually take the trains, when you sit down you will undoubtedly have the fattest, smelliest guy on the entire train sit down next to you? Or the occasional person who seems completely normal until he starts telling you about the conversation he had with Jesus - who was sitting in the exact same seat as you – two weeks ago? Not on the Metrorail. There are so few people on these trains you start to feel lonely. I’ve had entire cars to myself on numerous occasions, and it’s the kind of place where if someone sits down next to you, you think, “The nerve of this guy! I wanted my own row.”

Typically the crowd is made up professionals in the morning and afternoon rushes, construction workers in the early afternoon, and people dressed as empty seats the rest of the day. If you’re the type of person who doesn’t like interacting with other people, hates sharing and enjoys sitting in air conditioning, the Metrorail is definitely for you.

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For the Downtown / Brickell set

But the Metrorail is not limited to the selfish and anti-social! If you live in either the downtown or Brickell areas, and you also work in these areas, you can legitimately not use your car for days at a time if you are willing to use the Metrorail. Need to go shopping? The Metrorail takes you straight to Dadeland and Dadeland Station. If you’re not from Miami, this is where you can visit Target, Best Buy, or any number of national retailers. You can even take the Metrorail to Publix if you’re feeling particularly lazy, as there is one just across the street from the Brickell station and Dadeland South.

Giving the finger to US-1

But the joys of riding on Miami’s most neglected civic asset are not reserved for those living in unsold high rise condos in our ever-growing downtown. Arguably the worst commute in Dade County is driving up US-1 from Southwest Miami-Dade to a job in downtown. If you take this road a drive that takes 20 minutes without traffic can be an hour and a half if you live as far south as Cutler Ridge. But fret not! The South Dade Busway (Thank you, Katy Sorensen!) runs up US-1 to Dadeland South, where you can hop on a train to your job downtown, with a 50 cent transfer, and be downtown in about 35 minutes.

Even if you live in West Kendall and have to drive to one of the many Park and Rides along the Busway, this can make the trip as short as half an hour if you time the busses right. And there is no better feeling than looking out the window of the Metrorail at the unmoving traffic on US-1 and think you’ve discovered some unknown secret.

Great for downtown workers

For downtown workers, the stops in downtown Miami are also fantastically convenient. The main stop there is Government Center which is, as the name would imply, a large building with government offices in it. But the stop, which also houses a Mertomover and Bus terminal, actually feels like one of those big, giant mass transit stations in a real, live downtown complete with newsstands, coffee shops, and people pushing you out of the way so they can make their train. It is also just blocks from the Miami-Dade County courthouse and several of our city’s largest office buildings.

Even if you are not going to the courthouse, or one of the many high rises near Government Center, it is an easy transfer to the Metromover- a series of small electric buses that circulate overhead throughout downtown and Brickell- which can take you pretty much wherever you need to go in downtown.  But more on the Metromover later.

Other downtown stops include Brickell, which takes you right into the heart of Miami’s financial district, Historic Overtown, which is good if you like getting mugged, and Civic Center, which is where you would get off if you were working in one of our many downtown hospitals.

The next stop is Culmer. If for some reason you miss the Civic Center, get off at Culmer and turn around. You have no need to go past that stop unless you like looking out the window at extreme poverty and/or the 112 Expressway. Hialeah Park is closed and the TRI-Rail (another train you can take up to Broward and Palm Beach Counties, which has a connector station on the Metrorail) is now down to about 4 trips a day, so there is really no reason to go north of that stop.

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For the six UM kids who didn’t get a BMW for their 16th birthday

College students should love the Metrorail. The convenient stop at the University of Miami allows students to live in areas like Brickell or Kendall without having to endure a painful commute to campus every day. Similarly, if one was to work at UM, or just wants to use the gym, the Metrorail is your best option. It will drop you off right in front of the Bank United Center (aka the basketball arena) and it is a relatively short walk to anywhere on campus.

But UM students, please realize something: Just because the stop on US-1 and 27th says “Coconut Grove” does not mean you can take it out to the bars or to go shopping on the weekend. That stop is about a mile and a half from Sandbar or Tavern, and it’s even about 10 minutes to get to Flannigan’s. The point is, that stop is only useful if you have a hankering for Pollo Tropical and don’t feel like driving. But, under no circumstances, should you get off there if you are going out to the Grove. Unless you are going there to buy drugs.

It doesn’t run on “Miami Time”

The other great thing about the Metrorail is that, unlike pretty much everything else in this city, it runs on time*. So when you plan your trip from your house in Kendall to get to work by 9 o’clock, you can pretty much depend on the Metrorail showing up when the schedule says it’s going to. This, I suppose, is one benefit of having less riders than your typical Harley Davidson.

If you are not the type of person who enjoys memorizing train schedules (and I mean, we’ve only got one line so it ain’t too hard) you can even track your train to see where it is at http://www.miamidade.gov/transit/traintracker.asp. Do it from your phone if you want to.

* - Except for Sundays. On Sundays the train runs every half hour and that’s if you’re lucky. That, and apparently the entire city decides to experiment with mass transit on Sundays, making the train more crowded than your typical downtown subway in Shanghai. What I’m saying is, Sunday is a good time for a family drive.

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Farecards?! We don’t need no stinkin’ farecards!

As of the time of this article, the Metrorail costs $1.50 per ride. This is a pretty good deal if you consider that New York and Chicago both charge $2, and they actually make you share seats with other people. But if you come from one of these places where the city puts some thought and effort into its trains, please don’t expect some sort of convenient “fare card” or even “bill accepter” at our turnstiles. Oh no. You want to get on the Metrorail? You better be packing lots of change. Because the only thing the turnstiles at our 22 glass-brick and cement stations have are COIN accepters. Not even $1 bills. Coins.

Now, if for some reason you do not have coins all is not lost; each station also provides one or two change machines. These machines, however, are acutely tuned in to the international finance markets, and no longer accept dollars. I mean, they may say on the front “1, 5 and 10 dollar bills accepted,’ but try putting one in. It’ll spit it out faster than a guy who’s just been told what’s in his hot dog.

I would typically allow at least an extra 3-5 minutes to get change for the train if you go given the finicky nature of the machines. And if you were ever wondering where to go to spend all those extra Susan B. Anthony and Sacajawea dollars you have, any Miami Metrorail station is a perfect place. If you don’t have any, the international finance snob machines will be happy to dispense you as many as you want for your worthless paper dollars.

If you want to avoid this particular hassle, the county does offer a Metropass for $75 a month ($100 after October 1, 2008) that allows you unlimited rides on any of our trains, busses, or weird electric bus things that run on tracks over downtown. Why they couldn’t just use this same card as a refillable fare card like every other train in the country, I don’t know. But your options are walking around with 10 pounds of change in your pockets, or shelling out the 75 bucks for the monthly pass, so you make the call. And they wonder why nobody rides this thing.

Also be advised that the county will also charge you to park at any of the Metrorail stations which offer parking. You can either pay $4 a day, or shell out $6.25 for the monthly parking pass. If you are that bad at math, you deserve to lose the money you’re going to spend. Go with the monthly pass.

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Tourists and the Metrorail: It doesn’t go to South Beach

For you visitors out there, there ain’t a whole lot the Metrorail can do for you unless you are trying to see the “real” Miami. And unless you’re a bad neighborhood aficionado, only about half the system is going to be worth your while. If you are a tourist staying downtown, you cannot take the Metrorail, or even a decent bus really, from the airport. But if you want to explore, perhaps, the University of Miami you can take the Metrorail from downtown.

If you are staying in South Beach, you’re going to have to take a bus to the mainland, get off at Omni Station, and take the Metromover to Government Center to get on the train. At that point, I seriously recommend you just stay in South Beach, since there really ain’t much you will find taking the Metrorail that is better than what South Beach has to offer. Unless you’re really into urine soaked homeless people. However, if you want to avoid the humiliating experience of having the change machine reject your money, you can buy a 7-day Visitor’s Passport for $19 that allows you unlimited access to all of our lovely public transportation options.

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Metro mover: Cars with no drivers hover above downtown Miami

You may have noticed throughout this article I have mentioned the Metromover a few times. The Metromover (formerly called the PeopleMover) is an elevated electric bus system that snakes in and out of our towering downtown skylines, bringing workers from large Metrorail stations to smaller stations closer to their final destinations. It is completely automated and looks really space-aged as the buses move throughout the city without the aid of a driver. The Mover can get crowded, since the “busses” are about the size of your average Econoline van, but they are still easier – and less sweaty – than walking.

The Metromover literally goes pretty much everywhere in the Downtown/Brickell area, from the Financial District in South Brickell to the Omni Station near the Miami Herald building and Performing Arts Center in the north. It also has stops at Bayside Marketplace, the American Airlines Arena, and the James L. Knight Center. Among countless others. The Metromover is a series of 3, one-way loops with cars coming about every 5-10 minutes. These loops are:

Brickell Loop – runs from the southern and of Brickell on SE 14th St. up across the Miami River into downtown, and into the main downtown loop (not unlike the one in Chicago).

Downtown Loop – Runs clockwise through the main loop downtown, but does not go north to the Herald or south to Brickell

Omni Loop – runs from Omni Station in the north down to Government Center, runs counterclockwise through the downtown loop, then goes back up north through Bayside, past the Herald, and back to the Omni Station.

You can get a better idea of how these loops work by looking at this map.

You can transfer to any of the Metromover trains while inside the downtown loop. Which is pretty small. The Mover is great if you take the train into downtown and don’t want to have to walk through oppressive humidity or pouring rain, which are typically your 2 weather choices when walking through downtown Miami. And the best part about the metromover: It’s absolutely FREE! They used to charge a quarter, but I guess the county figured they were hassling us with change so much for the Metrorail they could spot us the twenty five cents.

The future of the Metrorail or the best half a cent we’ll ever spend

Back in 2002, Dade County voters overwhelmingly passed a half-cent increase in our sales tax to fund Metrorail expansion north up 27th Ave to Dolphin Stadium, and west to the Airport and Florida International University. Six years later guess how much track has been laid for that project? Yeah, we’re further along on colonizing Mars than we are in getting a train to the airport. And while that small spur, from downtown to MIA, appears to be the only part of the project that may actually, someday, maybe get built, don’t hold your breath. Something tells me this guide won’t be outdated for a long, long time.

But despite its limitations and massively-frustrating change machines, the Metrorail can be an economical and time saving alternative for any Miamian.  If you get as enraged at traffic as you crawl along US-1 as I do, and want to figure out a way to not have to do it again, look up at that mysterious cement track over your head. Tough you may have previously thought of it as a large piece of useless scenery, it just may me you salvation. In an era of $4-a-gallon gas, why not give the Metrorail a try? Just make sure you never go north of Culmer.

Miami Metrorail video by Rebecca Carter

Related Categories: Public Transportation Miami: Local News,

About the Author: Matt Meltzer is a featured columnist at Miami Beach 411.

See more articles by Matt Meltzer.

See more articles by Matt Meltzer

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"Riding The Miami Metrorail (Pictures & Video)"

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