On a typical journey, the dogged commuters who ride Metrorail and Metromover encounter delayed or stalled trains, puddles of rainwater inside cars and malfunctioning AC. Then, at the end of an arduous trip, the exasperation is compounded by broken elevators and escalators.
At stations throughout the network it is commonplace to see orange cones, yellow barriers and “Do Not Enter” signs blocking access to elevators and escalators that may not be repaired for days or weeks. For some, it’s an inconvenience. For passengers with mobility limitations, it’s an impediment. For all, it’s indicative of chronic maintenance problems afflicting a public transit system that does not adequately serve the public.
“Seldom does a day go by without an announcement that an upcoming station elevator or escalator is out of service, followed by the ironic closing statement of ‘thank you for using Metrorail,’ ” said Harry Gottlieb, a regular rider. “This is bad news for a parent with a baby stroller, a disabled person with a cane, walker or wheelchair, a senior or even someone with a bike.”
Vicki Wade uses Metrobus, Metrorail and Metromover to get from her home in southwest Miami-Dade to her office downtown, a trip that normally takes one hour and 15 minutes, occasionally one hour and 45 minutes. She said breakdowns are constant, and she blames ancient, jury-rigged equipment.
“The escalator at Brickell station was recently dismantled for about three weeks, with the parts just sitting there, and one of the elevators only worked sporadically during that time,” Wade said. “It’s quite a long stairway to negotiate at that station.”
Wade, proud to be a faithful Metrorail user since it opened 34 years ago, said she’s accustomed to mass transit mishaps — buses that conk out in the middle of the road, wet floors on trains, jammed doors.
“My employer is used to hearing employees call and say we’ll be late because we’re stuck on a train or Metromover, and he understands because he uses transit, too,” she said. “It’s either that or drive, and driving has become unbearable in Miami.”
Stanley Goldenberg commutes from southwest Miami-Dade to his job as a NOAA meteorologist and hurricane researcher on Virginia Key. He recalled a recalcitrant escalator at the Dadeland South station that used to halt at random.
“When it stopped it threw everybody forward, and even though I was holding on, I could barely keep myself upright,” said Goldenberg, who once helped a woman who fell and cut her leg. He now cautions people to use the handrails. “The out-of-order announcements are frequent. You’ve got to go to the next station and then take a bus back to your destination station. It’s an incredible waste of time.”
The 204 Metrorail and Metromover elevators and escalators were out of service for 37,233 hours, or the equivalent of 1,551 days, in 2018, according to a May report from Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez. In November, Commissioners Joe Martinez and Eileen Higgins requested an examination of the operational failures of the county’s 1,268 elevators, escalators and moving walkways, including those at Miami International Airport, PortMiami and county buildings.
Station units on the 22-mile Metrorail system and 4.4-mile Metromover circuit were out of order much more often than those in any other department. The airport has three times the number of units (621) but they were out less than half the time (15,403 hours) of transit’s units.
The most problematic transit unit is the Fifth Street Metromover station elevator, which was out of service 3,621 hours in 2018, or 41 percent of the time based on the total number of 8,760 hours in a year. The second-most bothersome culprit was the First Street escalator at 3,026 hours, and third worst was the Tri-Rail station escalator at 2,184 hours. Other units with outages of more than 600 hours included a Government Center escalator and elevator, College North elevator, Hialeah elevator, Dadeland South escalator, Dadeland North elevator, Financial District escalator, MIA elevator and escalator and Earlington Heights elevator. If you’re at the Knight Center station, avoid the escalator (out for 1,944 hours last year) and take the elevator (out only 86 hours last year).
The winners, or units with the lowest number of out-of-service hours, were the Brickell Metromover elevator (60 hours), the 11th Street elevator (65 hours) and the State Plaza elevator (69 hours).
While most departments delineated or estimated the causes for outages (software, motor or door failure), the causes for all Metrorail and Metromover outages were listed as Unknown in the report.
Transit stations’ performance improved during the first seven months of 2019, when the overall rate of availability of elevators and escalators during scheduled hours ranged from 93 to 98 percent, according to data from the county Department of Transportation and Public Works, but the data was not broken down by unit.
“We strive every day to ensure that our elevators and escalators are working properly,” said department director Alice Bravo. “In order to expedite the repair of any elevator or escalator that goes down, through our maintenance contractor, we have technicians who report directly to our stations to provide an on-site, quick response on a daily basis.”
Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava uses public transit frequently and hears lots of complaints from her constituents. For disabled people, broken elevators present “not just a hardship but make it impossible for them to get where they need to go,” she said.
“It’s part of a larger problem with infrastructure,” she said. “We’ve delayed and deferred maintenance and repair for decades and we’re paying the price. If we’re moving toward transit choice with real options, people are not going to give up their cars to use a small, unreliable system prone to breakdowns.”
In his report, Gimenez said having four elevator companies hired under six maintenance contracts working with 15 county departments run by 148 facility managers means a lack of centralized supervision “which has led to inconsistencies and a lack of accountability.”
Gimenez formed an Elevator Working Group to improve maintenance, repair and modernization. He wants more thorough auditing of the units serviced by elevator contractors to ensure that response time and repair time are adhering to contract stipulations.
The county is consulting with transit authorities in New York, Washington, Philadelphia and Arizona that rely on their own in-house maintenance staff, but given the complexity of repairs and the difficulty of getting parts for the county’s wide range of elevator vintages and designs, the county would still need to depend on contractors for some work, Gimenez said.
“Hiring in this industry is a particular challenge, given the specialization of this work, the national union hiring rates which are higher than county salaries, and local collective bargaining agreements which restrict the salary rate at which elevator inspectors can be hired,” Gimenez said in the report.
Goldenberg encouraged passengers to call 311 and report any glitches “because the squeaky wheel gets the grease and we need to squeak.”
Maintenance standards must be upgraded or transit breakdowns will continue to discourage ridership, Goldenberg said.
“Who dropped the ball? Our NOAA aircraft are on a very strict maintenance schedule,” he said. “The county lets things wear out. Where do the half-penny tax funds go? What will happen to the new Metrorail cars and the new buses if they are not maintained?
“Other cities consider public transit a high priority because that’s what makes people want to live there.”