In today’s episode of This Day in Miami History, Miami’s Metrorail runs for the first time. It presents opportunity, challenge, embarrassment and growth. Featuring former Miami-Dade County Commissioner Charles Dusseau.

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[00:01 Matthew Bunch]: There was a time in Miami where if you wanted to get anywhere, you could probably get there by streetcar. The streetcars could take you from Coral Gables to downtown Miami. Even over the Bay to Miami Beach, north and south. A small network connected the city. But it was loud, and by 1940 the residents of Miami had had enough. And so the streetcars were replaced with a bus system. 

The citizens of the city were so happy that there was in fact a mock funeral for what was called “Old Man Streetcar,” a black draped streetcar being dragged through the city. The headlines of the newspaper the next day, “The End of One Era, Beginning of Another,” and in fact an editorial cartoon in the Miami Herald the next day simply titled: “Good Riddance,” with a cute little trolley being shoved into Biscayne Bay. 

For the next 40 years, there would be no rail-based public transportation in Miami-Dade County. However, as early as 1958, there was a realization that some sort of rapid-transit train system might be beneficial for Miami and Miami-Dade County. 

It took two more decades, but eventually that plan would come to fruition. And what we’re going to take a look at is the successes and the failures of that plan. By starting from the very beginning. 

Today. This Day in Miami History. May 20th, 1984. The launch of Metrorail. 

[Intro Song: Miami Sunrise by King Elizabeth] 

[01:54 Matthew Bunch]: Despite the anti-rail bluster of the 1940s, it soon became apparent that Miami would need some sort of high-speed transportation system. The county was growing rapidly after World War II and with the age of infrastructure, Interstate highways and new technological possibilities, all kinds of considerations were put on the table. 

The county considered possibilities and ran studies, but eventually in the 1970s settled on what came to be known as Metrorail. An elevated, high-speed rail system designed to connect the county north to South and east to west. 

The core of the Metrorail would be a 9.5-mile section formerly maintained by the Florida East Coast Railway. It was purchased by Miami-Dade Transit, and running parallel to US-1, would become an identifiable part of Miami’s transportation scene. 

But what the drivers on US-1 who see Metrorail running every day may not know is that that line was only one part of a much larger system originally considered by Miami-Dade County. Some of the understanding of the way that Metrorail developed is that that was the first part, and other parts were supposed to come, but that wasn’t really the way that the Metrorail system was sold at the time. 

What is clear is that Kaiser Engineers, who were hired by Miami-Dade Transit to propose the plan for Metrorail, really develop it and move it along, had a total of five lines considered for Miami-Dade County. Line 2, as they labeled it would run from Dadeland to Hialeah. However, Line 1 would run all the way from Coral Ridge to Opa-locka. Line 3 would connect the Douglas stop to the airport, and — speaking of the airport — Line 4 would run from the airport to Government Center and across the Bay to the Miami Beach Convention Center. Line 5? Government Center all the way to Golden Glades. 

It was a truly cross-county way of commuting. It would be possible to get from Joe Robbie Stadium to the AmericanAirlines Arena. It would be possible to get from Hialeah to Cutler Ridge. From the Beach to the airport. Any of the major landmarks that you wanted to get to in Miami? Metrorail would be able to get you there. 

So what happened to this proposed plan? Why did Miami-Dade County only have Line 2 for nearly three decades? Why did it take so long to connect the airport? And why on Earth can’t I get to Hard Rock Stadium on the Metrorail? 

A lot of answers have been bandied about over the last three decades. Typical government incompetence, cost overruns, etc. etc. But there’s one cause — arguably the most important cause — that has generally been ignored ever since Metrorail took off in 1984. 

[05:16 Various Voices]: Inflation in the 70s. Inflation. Inflation? Inflation. 

[05:16 President Gerald Ford]: Whip Inflation Now! 

[05:22 Matthew Bunch]: In a rather hard-hitting piece in 1981, published by the Miami Herald entitled Metrorail: Troubles Along the Line,” inflation is really singled out as one of the biggest problems in Metrorail’s construction. 

“’Inflation has just killed us,’ said current Dade Transportation coordinator Warren Higgins, the man now in charge of building Metrorail. ‘There was no way we could get this thing built on a seven-percent inflation budget.’” 

In the story, it’s pointed out that wages went up 25 percent during the course of construction, and the cost of basic building materials went up more than 50 percent. Those kinds of unanticipated cost escalations made it very difficult to budget for a widespread plan like Metrorail was originally intended to be, and so Line 2 largely stuck. 

However, in 1984, trains did start running. May 20th was the grand opening where anyone could come and ride for free. But May 21st was the first real day that Metrorail was operating as a transportation option for Dade County. 

[06:31 Nick Bogert, WTVJ-TV]: Today’s operations, though, are going pretty smoothly, which may help this fledgling train system gain some credibility with the people who really count: The commuters. 

[06:41 Matthew Bunch]: That report from WTVJ Nick Bogart would illustrate two very important issues for Miami-Dade Transit. One: A significant drop-off between the grand opening when anyone could ride for free, and the first revenue day when fares would be collected. And the second thing, the word he indicated: Credibility. Would this be a credible mass-transit program or would Miamians continue to stick to their cars? As the 1980s wore on, and as Metrorail remained a rather limited system, the answer was quite clearly number 2. 

The credibility necessary for a kind of communal shift in attitudes was simply not there. The initial estimates had considered more than 200,000 rioters a day for the Metrorail system. But according to an October 1989 report published by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Urban Mass Transportation Administration, those estimates were laughable. In fact, the average per-day ridership of the Miami Metrorail was approximately 35.4 thousand people: A miss of approximately 85%. And even more embarrassingly, the report found that as Miami was adding additional rail service, it was losing riders. 

Something was wrong. And in fact, something was so wrong that Metrorail became a bit of a political punchline. 

[08:18 President Ronald Reagan]: In Miami, the $1 billion subsidy helped build a system that serves less than 10,000 daily riders. That comes to $100,000 a passenger. It would have been a lot cheaper to buy everyone a limousine. 

[08:32 Matthew Bunch]: Despite the cost overruns and criticism, the Metrorail becomes part of Miami’s story in the 1980s. And the story of Miami in the late 1980s was a story of revival. After the trials and tribulations of the early- and mid-1980s, the late-80s saw Miami with a number of developments that seemed to give the city and county some positive momentum. One of those developments was the opening of Bayside. 

While Bayside Marketplace was opened by the Rouse Company in 1987, It had its coming-out  appearance in 1989 as it hosted two days of Today from NBC. Jane Pauley and Bryant Gumbel held court, hosting America’s most popular morning show in the middle of the Magic City. 

In steps newly elected Miami-Dade County commissioner Charles Dusseau. 

Only inaugurated in the previous October, Dusseau was placed on the county’s Transportation Commission and was a logical choice to be brought on to the Today stage to talk about Miami’s growing infrastructure as it relates to traffic and mass transportation. 

You would think, on the Today stage, featuring Jane Pauley — one of morning television’s most popular hosts — it would present a golden opportunity for Miami-Dade County to change the way that the rest of the country looked at its mass transportation system. You would be wrong. 

[09:59 Jane Pauley]: It’s still smarts, the president’s crack, does it? 

You really want to finish this system, despite the fact that it is underutilized? 

Well, we heard the motorists complain that it doesn’t go where I’ve got to get. 

If I want to ask how many would leave their cars at home and take mass transit even if it were more or less convenient, I’m going to guess they’d rather stay in their car because Miami still thinks of itself as a suburban area when it is an urban area. 

[10:20 Commissioner Charles Dusseau]: And if you were to ask the audience, at least my wife would raise her hand because she does take the train every day. 

[10:26 Jane Pauley]: Why, because you take the car? 

[10:27 Matthew Bunch]: Forgive me for editorializing a second, but in the entire recorded history of the Today show, I can think of two hard-hitting interviews. One was with Tom Cruise, the other is with Dade County Commissioner Charles Dusseau. 

I was astounded by the tone of the interview. And so for more background about that experience, and his knowledge about Metrorail, I had to talk to him. 

[10:52 Matthew Bunch]: Hi, good morning Mr. Dusseau, how are you? 

[10:55 Commissioner Charles Dusseau]: I’m good and you? 

[10:56 Matthew Bunch]: I’m doing well, thank you. 

[10:58 Matthew Bunch]: That’s the voice of former Dade County Commissioner Charles Dusseau who I had the pleasure of speaking to earlier this month. I do want to let you know right now I will be sharing the full interview I had with him in between now and when our next episode drops in June. I encourage you to check it out, he’s lived a pretty fascinating political life and goes all the way to state levels of government. But obviously the area focus today is on Miami-Dade County public transportation and his role in it and especially the interview. 

[11:29 Commissioner Charles Dusseau]: What they were looking for is something of a “gotcha” kind of interview. So they’ve got President Reagan talking about buying a limousine for everybody who were daily riders on the Metrorail. And, so, for them they see this as a cheap shot that they can do down here in Miami, come down from New York and, you know, show the locals here how clever they are. 

[12:01 Matthew Bunch]: Of course, there was a whole other question here. Dusseau was elected as a reformer, originally entering politics trying to change the way the Miami-Dade County elected its commissioners. He failed in that referendum effort, but eventually won in court, then ran for and won a seat on the Commission in October of 1988. So why was someone who was a relative political outsider, whose experience came in banking and finance, running Dade County’s transportation? Dusseau has a simple — and kind of comical — explanation for that. 

[12:37 Commissioner Charles Dusseau]: It really was meant more as a punishment as opposed to a reward for getting elected to the commission. Because I was clearly, you know, the outsider. I had beaten a, you know, an incumbent who was part of the establishment. And so I was not, you know, viewed favorably necessarily by the establishment, and I was not given a plum assignment. But, you know, you try to make lemonade out of lemons, and that’s what I tried to do. 

[12:01 Matthew Bunch]: And that’s kind of what he did. Even though Dusseau had no direct experience overseeing transportation at any level of government, he was responsible while he served on the Transportation Committee for overseeing the completion of the second loop of the Metromover, which services Downtown Miami. He took pride in the fact that that project came in on budget and only slightly delayed, even though Hurricane Andrew had interfered with construction in 1992. Eventually, his success in Dade County — the Metromover along with other things — would lead to Governor Lawton Chiles selecting him as the Secretary of Commerce for the state of Florida. 

So, what is the story of the Miami Metrorail? Well, it’s a story of government struggling against headwinds, as we saw in the 1970s with inflation. Struggling against itself, the federal government restricting funding in the 1980s. Struggling against popular opinion, as we saw in the 1990s, and eventually settling into a place of relative stability with some hope for the future. 

Over the course of the last decade, we’ve seen development along the current Metrorail line, as well as the opening of the airport connection, finally establishing from Miami International Airport a railway into downtown. Is it the original plan thought up so many decades ago? No, it is not. If you live north of downtown, Metrorail does almost nothing for you. But it does give a certain foothold for public transportation in Miami. And maybe one day some other outsider, some other reformer will come up with a way to expand Metrorail and eventually stitch the county together utilizing high-speed rail transportation. Who will that reformer be? For now, we simply don’t know. 

But what we do know is that we’re at the end of today’s show. I first off want to thank former Miami-Dade County Commissioner Charles Dusseau for his time and his candor. Like I said, in about two weeks I anticipate I’ll be releasing that full interview for you to check out, and I really encourage you to do so. It’s a great window into a particular time in Miami-Dade County’s history, as well as a study into a unique individual in our political history who doesn’t get the attention he deserves. I also want to thank King Elizabeth for providing the theme song to our show, Miami Sunrise. I encourage you to check them out on your preferred streaming platform. And I also want to encourage you to follow us on social media: @thisdaymiamipod on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, pretty much anywhere you would get a social media account. As well as, our website and home for all kinds of information. The last thing I want you to do, if you’d be so kind, is to make sure you subscribe to This Day in Miami History on your preferred podcast platform. And if you’re feeling especially generous, leave us a review. And even if you’re more generous, make sure it’s a five-star review. I’d love to hear your feedback on this episode, future episode ideas, anything that might be tickling your fancy. Again, don’t be shy communicating on social media, I’d love to get your feedback. 

So until next time, I’ve been Matthew Bunch, and thank you so much for listening. 

[Outro Song: Miami Sunrise by King Elizabeth] 

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