Published Nov. 16, 2008

Residents unload anger at failing transit
More than 600 people gave up a sunny Saturday to talk about the shortcomings of the local transit system in spite of a half-cent sales tax that was supposed to build new rail lines to every corner of the county.
BY LARRY LEBOWITZ

They came, they vented, they consumed boxed lunches. And they argued about the future of public transportation in Miami-Dade County.

More than 600 people descended on a hotel convention hall Saturday to decry the squandered promises of the half-cent sales tax voters approved in 2002.

The summit, called by County Commissioner Dennis Moss and Mayor Carlos Alvarez, was as symbolic as it was substantive.

After nearly six years, the county needed to publicly admit that it couldn't deliver on all of the promises in the People's Transportation Plan campaign led by former Mayor Alex Penelas.

"The harsh reality is the PTP was over-promised," said Alvarez, who was elected in 2004. "Too much was promised to too many people. . . . The campaign worked -- and at the same time it failed. Expectations, even today, are unrealistic, unworkable and unaffordable."

TAX PAID FOR REPAIRS

As The Miami Herald reported earlier this year, while the campaign promised "New Money for New Projects," more than 60 percent of the sales-tax revenue has gone toward routine transit operations and maintenance.

Shortly after the election, county leaders slid more than $700 million worth of maintenance and upkeep projects that the voters had never approved into the sales-tax plan.

The projects were the result of more than two decades of inadequate funding at Miami-Dade Transit.

The result: not enough money to build the 88.9 miles of new Metrorail lines that voters were expecting. At this point, they're likely to get a single 2.4-mile spur from Earlington Heights station into the new intermodal center just east of the airport.

The public teed off on Alvarez, County Manager George Burgess, Transit Director Harpal Kapoor and the county commission for 2½ hours.

Many of their complaints were about the existing transit service, not the failings of the sales-tax plan: filthy train station elevators and malfunctioning escalators; buses that run late or not at all; long walks to distant bus stops.

"Don't come back and raise more taxes on me," said Miami community activist Marva Lightbourne. "This is an 'F' community when it comes to transit."

To raise more revenue, a handful of speakers suggested the county break one of the key campaign promises and stop giving free rides to everyone 65 and older.

LET FEWER RIDE FREE

Paula Mark Hagen, a retired public schools teacher from Miami Lakes, said the program should be scaled back so only low-income seniors receive free rides.

"I'm for seniors paying more, if they can afford it," Hagen said.

Others suggested reinstating fares on the downtown Metromover, which became free to everyone the day after the Nov. 2, 2002, election.

Transportation advocate Barbara Walters hammered commissioners for failing to fully empower the independent citizens' watchdog group that was sold to the voters in 2002.

Lee Swerdlin, a real estate asset administrator, blasted a new proposal by Burgess that would further loosen the restrictions on the way the county could spend the sales-tax proceeds on routine transit operations.

"I'm sorry. You can fool me once, but you can't fool me twice," Swerdlin said. "If this isn't a bait-and-switch just like the Lotto, I don't know what is."

Francis Ragoo, of the Unrepresented People's Positive Action Council, suggested that the tax should be repealed if the county fails to build the Metrorail North Corridor, which the black community has been waiting for since the late 1970s.

"Whatever it takes, find a way to do it," Ragoo said of the proposed line on Northwest 27th Avenue, "or return the half-penny tax."

In an afternoon roundtable session, County Commissioner Barbara Jordan said she was willing to consider using express buses on separate lanes as a cheaper, interim solution to the promised Metrorail corridors.

She added that the North Corridor should remain the county's top priority if more federal funds ever become available.

"But if it means building one mile at a time, we need to do the North Corridor one mile at a time," Jordan said. "The community was promised it. We deserve it."

One North Corridor advocate was a notable no-show. Dorrin Rolle, chairman of the county commission's transit committee, failed to appear at the summit.

Rolle has slammed the Alvarez administration for being able to find funds to build a Florida Marlins ballpark and a port tunnel, but not to find a way to finish the North Corridor.

"At the end of the day, I wish there was a magic solution," Moss said. "But there isn't one. The only solution is that four letter word: Cash."