Last week, Miami-Dade County commissioners unanimously approved a contract for a rapid-bus system in South Dade that will be awarded to a company with political ties to Mayor Carlos A. Giménez.
For years, residents and commissioners from the southern part of the county have been asking for a Metrorail expansion to relieve congestion and better connect residents to their jobs elsewhere in Miami-Dade. But in 2018, at the behest of Giménez, the county’s transportation board opted to forgo rail construction in favor of a new bus system.
Now, commissioners have awarded a $368 million contract for a bus rapid transit (BRT) system to OHL USA, the U.S. arm of a Spanish infrastructure construction company. BRT calls for dedicated bus lanes that other vehicles can’t use or cross, bus stations at which bus fare can be paid off-board, and short wait times between trips.
Records show the push for BRT and the company that ultimately won the contract are tied to Giménez and several of his associates who are known movers and shakers in the Miami political scene.
Ralph Garcia-Toledo, a lobbyist and the owner of a construction company that has worked on several county projects, was one of the loudest voices in advocating for BRT over rail expansion alongside Giménez in 2018 and met with several members of the transportation board before it voted in favor of BRT, according to the Miami Herald.
Garcia-Toledo was finance chairman of Giménez’s 2016 mayoral reelection campaign, and he has given the maximum contribution of $5,600 to Giménez’s congressional campaign for Florida’s 26th District. Garcia-Toledo also arranged a Hong Kong meeting between Giménez and the casino company Genting, which is pushing for a controversial monorail project between Miami Beach and the mainland, according to a county ethics investigation.
Giménez and Garcia-Toledo told the Miami Herald that their business connections do not constitute a conflict of interest when it comes to Garcia-Toledo’s work under county contracts or his advocacy in transit issues.
But the connections between the mayor and the bus system run even deeper. OHL, the company that won the contract, is represented by prominent lobbyists Jorge Luis Lopez and Pablo Acosta, each of whom has his own history with Giménez.
Lopez, a lawyer who has been a lobbyist for the Miami Heat and a number of construction firms, has been seen posing for photos with Giménez at various county events.
OHL’s other lobbyist, Acosta, worked alongside Lopez to defuse a scandal in 2012 when the Heat was accused of cheating taxpayers out of profits the team had promised to share.
Both Acosta and Garcia-Toledo were part of Giménez’s “entourage” when he ran for mayor in 2011 and met with activist and 2 Live Crew rapper Luther Campbell to try to secure an endorsement. And Giménez was briefly employed as agovernment operations consultant for the now-defunct Steel Hector & Davis law firm, which Acosta worked for.
The resolution to award the contract to OHL came from Giménez and bears his signature. But in response to a question from New Times about the potential of a conflict of interest, a spokesperson at the mayor’s office said the mayor is not involved in selecting contracts and that the final decision rests with commissioners.
In South Dade, the OHL project calls for 14 bus stations with climate control, plus branded buses. Quicker travel times and real-time schedule information are priorities. The project will be partially paid for by grants from the federal and state departments of transportation, with the remaining $129 million coming from a county transit surtax, according to the contract.
Transit board members did not always want BRT in South Dade. In 2018, Commissioner Dennis Moss, whose district includes much of South Dade, was among those who voted against BRT over Metrorail expansion but lost via a 15-to-7 margin.
Moss tells New Times that although he still believes South Dade needs a Metrorail track, some compromise had to be made, hence his yes vote for OHL at last week’s meeting.
“Not that I like it. I fought against it, but it’s gonna go forward,” Moss says. “This is the only option that’s available to us now. I’d rather move forward with something until a decision is made about rail. My preference has always been and will always be rail.”
The contract includes a stipulation that all BRT stations must be easily convertible into rail stations down the line. Moss says that’s an important detail, in that he wants to create more business and other opportunities in South Dade alongside a railway line in the future.
Moss says Giménez was adamant about using BRT rather than rail, and that the mayor argued that there isn’t enough ridership in South Dade to justify a costly Metrorail expansion.
Moss doesn’t buy that.
“I made the argument that if you look at a number of other transit projects, they don’t have the same ridership we have along the South Dade corridor, but they were funded. I wasn’t sold on that argument,” he says.
In an emailed statement to New Times, Giménez says BRT is the best solution for South Dade because of its makeup, adding that a rail station would be too expensive and would leave other parts of the county without transit funds.
“Because of the more suburban and rural nature of this South Dade area, a Metrorail connection would be immensely expensive and would take up more than 70 percent of all available transit funds for the next 40 years,” Giménez says.
Some transit advocates say that although a BRT system isn’t ideal, South Dade desperately needs some sort of transit relief, and they’ll take what they can get.
Kevin Amézaga, executive director of the Miami Riders Alliance and a former South Dade resident, says commuting out of the corridor was a daily nightmare and an issue for many residents.
“South Dade residents like myself need a way to get out of South Dade,” Amézaga tells New Times.
Amézaga says residents were initially promised a rail system and that a new bus system presents its own problems. Specifically, he fears the bus system could be taken away if ridership numbers don’t climb.
“Buses aren’t permanent and are not a promise,” he says.
But at this point, he says, it’s better than nothing.
“It’s already funded. We already have this project. We’re gonna have relief.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story mistakenly reported that Jorge Luis Lopez had donated $2,800 to Giménez’s congressional campaign. In fact, a different Jorge Lopez made the contribution.