By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org
A private transportation company with politically astute owners and a troublesome track record could score a $9 million no-bid extension on an expired Miami-Dade contract to operate more than two dozen bus routes.
Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava is seeking approval from county commissioners to waive competitive bidding and re-up with Limousines of South Florida for one year while the county’s Transportation and Public Works Department transitions to a new vendor, according to a May 3 memo. The county commission is set to vote on the contract extension June 14.
Should Levine Cava’s request pass, it will mark the sixth time since 2017 that Miami-Dade elected officials have given Limousines of South Florida, or LSF, a no-bid renewal despite poor service complaints from disabled riders, lawsuits against the company by people allegedly injured by its drivers and warnings from the county’s transit union leaders that LSF is a dangerous operator. The company is currently operating bus routes even though its agreement terminated in February.
During the same five-year span, company owners Rene and Raymond Gonzalez, through LSF, its sister company Transportation America and dozens of other related corporations, have helped fuel political runs by Levine Cava and 12 out of 13 county commissioners to the tune of $223,000, according to campaign finance reports.
The Gonzalezes are also gassing up the candidacies of leading contenders for county commission seats that are up for grabs in the upcoming August primary election. Doral Mayor Juan Carlos “JC” Bermudez, who is running to replace termed-out Jose “Pepe” Diaz, got $10,000. State Rep. Bryan Avila, who wants the seat being vacated by termed-out Rebeca Sosa, also scored $10,000. Micky Steinberg, an ex-Miami Beach commissioner who is the only candidate seeking Sally Heyman’s termed-out seat, received $13,000.
PAYING BIG FOR INFLUENCE
In the past decade, various Gonzalez enterprises have pumped $682,500 into the campaigns and political action committees supporting candidates for city of Miami and county elective offices who won and their reelection campaigns, according to a spreadsheet showing political contributions made by LSF and its related companies.
Critics like Danielle Rivera, a Miami resident and public transit activist, allege LSF and its affiliates keep winning lucrative county contracts and no-bid extensions worth millions of dollars annually because the Gonzalezes’ campaign bundling prowess has endeared them to Miami-Dade elected officials.
“They just turn around and give them more contracts,” Rivera said. “I don’t understand it other than the campaign money.”
Former state legislator Miguel De Grandy, a government affairs lawyer representing LSF, Transportation America and other Gonzalez entities, denied that his clients are successful due to political quid pro quos. “These were not backroom deals,” De Grandy said. “They were hotly contested. My clients won them in an open process.”
Rivera, who said she has to use a walker because she suffers from nerve damage, has been complaining to county officials about LSF since 2017, when Miami-Dade hired the company to operate 14 under-utilized public bus routes. At the time, Miami-Dade bureaucrats claimed outsourcing the bus routes was a cost-saving measure. Instead of seeking bids, the county accessed a contract LSF has with the city of Miami to operate and maintain the city’s free trolley buses. While the city owns and provides the trolleys, LSF uses its own fleet of buses for 22 Miami-Dade routes, plus once-a-week bus service for disabled and elderly residents in six residential communities in unincorporated Miami-Dade.
LEFT ON THE SIDE OF THE ROAD
As a disabled person relying on public transit, Rivera told Florida Bulldog that she believes Limousines of South Florida does a terrible job dealing with handicapped riders, mostly based on her own experiences trying to catch rides on the Miami trolley that stops in front of her apartment building in the city’s Roads neighborhood.
“The wheelchair lifts and ramps often don’t work and are not maintained,” Rivera said. “The drivers will argue against using the lift when I ask for it. They also don’t stop or let me get on when they see I have a walker.”
In addition to seeking fixes from LSF executives and city and county transportation managers, Rivera has pleaded with Miami-Dade elected officials to stop renewing LSF’s contract at county commission meetings. Rivera also documented some of her interactions with LSF buses and trolleys with her cellphone camera, posting the clips on her social media accounts.
Her first video, which she took in October 2017, shows Rivera attempting to get on an LSF bus along a route near Homestead in southwest Miami-Dade that the company took over.
After stopping, the driver gets out, goes to the back of the bus and presses a button that brings the lift down. When Rivera gets on it, the lift doesn’t go up. After two more failed attempts, the lift finally works when the driver gets on it with Rivera.
In 2019, Rivera, her husband and her then-seven-year-old son moved to Miami in an attempt to be closer to more reliable transit options. Instead, she found herself facing similar problems with the LSF-operated city trolleys, Rivera said.
In a February 2020 video, Rivera recorded a trolley stop to pick her up. The door opens and she tells the driver she needs to use the wheelchair lift at the back of the trolley. The driver nods, closes the door and drives off.
In a more recent video, taken on April 15, Rivera is unable to get on a trolley because the door to the wheelchair lift is locked and the driver can’t open it. She waits 10 minutes for the next trolley, which has a front door wheelchair ramp that gets stuck after she boards. About 20 minutes later, the driver is able to close the ramp and the trolley departs.
“It’s five years of the exact same thing,” Rivera said. “I am not physically able to drive and my family lives below the poverty line so we can’t afford a car. But where we live now, just south of downtown Miami, we shouldn’t need one.”
TRANSIT UNION ISSUES WARNING AGAINST LSF
Rivera is not alone in sounding the alarm about LSF getting a $9 million no-bid extension. On May 2, the top boss for the union representing Miami-Dade bus operators sent a letter to Levine Cava objecting to giving LSF another year operating county bus routes.
In his letter, Transport Workers Union local president Jeffrey Mitchell alleged LSF “has a long track record delivering inefficient, inferior and oftentimes, dangerous transportation services to Miami-Dade County riders.”
Mitchell also mentioned the political fundraising by the transportation company’s owners. “LSF and its 45 companies led by Rene and Raymond Gonzalez are consistent campaign contributors to the Board of County Commissioners, as well as Miami-Dade’s elected leaders,” Mitchell wrote. “However, their generosity and strong interest in securing very lucrative county contracts should not supersede public safety.”
In several bullet points, Mitchell claimed LSF is allowed to use rebuilt equipment, stretch out the lifespan of older buses and hire ex-county drivers who were let go for having unsafe and unprofessional practices. On more than one occasion, LSF buses have caught fire, Mitchell said. He denounced the no-bid extension as a “giveaway” and a “farce.”
LSF has also run into legal trouble in recent months stemming from its operation of public transit routes. On May 10 and March 31, Lisa Lidell and Wynetta Noland filed separate lawsuits against LSF in Miami-Dade Circuit Court. The two women allege they were seriously injured after being thrown from their seats on an LSF bus on April 23, 2021.
On March 23, Moracho Sarmiento sued LSF over an accident involving a bus allegedly crashing into his car in Homestead on Christmas Eve 2019. In a lawsuit filed against LSF on Feb. 8, Ronald Smith alleges he sustained injuries when he fell out of his wheelchair when the Miami trolley he was on made an abrupt stop on June 20, 2018.
LSF lawyer De Grandy defended the company’s performance and insisted his client quickly responds to any problems Rivera reports to the city and county. “Any valid complaint she has filed, they are promptly followed up on,” De Grandy said. “She has filed different complaints about the trolleys, but those are provided by the city of Miami. Still, we do a pre-check inspection before any vehicle goes into service. Can a lift break during service? Yes. But we do take precautions to make sure the trolley is working properly.”
De Grandy declined to comment about specific lawsuits, but he said any accidents involving LSF drivers is part of doing business providing public transit services. “You look at Miami-Dade Transit’s track record and they have multiple accidents,” De Grandy said. “We live in one of the most congested traffic markets in the U.S. with a lot of folks who unfortunately don’t know how to drive. When you are logging hundreds of miles, accidents will happen with any company.”
RIVERA DIGS INTO GONZALEZ CAMPAIGN MACHINE
Rivera made a database of every political contribution since 1998 that Rene and Raymond Gonzalez have made through a myriad of corporations under their names, including LSF and Transportation America, a sister company that has a county contract to provide at-home transit service to disabled and elderly people. That deal is also coming up for a no-bid renewal, according to Miami-Dade memos and county commission meeting minutes.
“They made me mad so I dug,” Rivera said. “With the lockdown, I had time to do it. Coop me up and give me time, I will find something productive to do.”
Rivera’s database also lists contributions Gonzalez entities made since 2019 to campaigns and committees supporting Miami Mayor Francis Suarez and Miami city commissioners Joe Carrollo, Alex Diaz de la Portilla and Ken Russell. Their combined total haul: $34,200. During the same time period, the Gonzalezes funneled $142,500 to campaigns and committees supporting Miami-Dade elected officials.
Through public records requests and online sources, Rivera also put together graphs and charts breaking down city and county payments to LSF, Transportation America and related companies. For instance, between 2015 and 2021, Miami-Dade paid $281.5 million and Miami paid $57.1 million to Gonzalez-owned companies.
Miami-Dade County Commissioner Raquel Regalado, who’s been the beneficiary of $15,000 in Gonzalez-related campaign contributions, scoffed at the insinuation LSF’s owners keep scoring no-bid renewals from the county because of their connections.
“We have to raise money to run campaigns,” Regalado said. “Giving me a campaign check doesn’t mean anything. The problem is the leap that [Rivera] makes from contributions to corruption. If she has proof of corruption, she should take it to the state attorney.”
Rivera said she just wants county officials to provide her and other bus riders with accessible transit services. By exposing how LSF continues to win no-bid deals despite its failings because of the company’s political influence, Miami-Dade elected officials can’t claim they didn’t know, Rivera said.
“It is clearly obvious that something is going on,” Rivera said. “They know this provider is hurting passengers and nothing has been done.”