“I don't think Baylink should be a priority,” the two-term school board member told about 70 people gathered for the Tuesday Morning Breakfast Club, a venerable Beach gathering dedicated to civic speakers. “I think Baylink is a good opportunity at the state level to take some bed-tax money and use it for transportation.”:
The pricey light-rail system, envisioned as a speedy connection between the beach and the mainland, is a stated priority for Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who often cites Baylink as an important part of his transportation agenda.
Regalado's father, Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado, and Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine also support the Baylink concept, though the funding formula for the long-delayed project hasn't been proposed. A recent price estimate put the cost at $775 million, but that’s based on a 2004 report that’s being updated.
On Tuesday, Levine took a jab at Gimenez over a scrapped meeting scheduled that afternoon for all three mayors to discuss Baylink. “It was canceled as transportation is not really that important in Dade County,” Levine said in a text message. In an interview, he added: “"It's really better to focus on building a mega-mall. Everybody wants their children to grow up and work at a mall.”
The remarks were aimed at Gimenez's support of American Dream Miami, a 200-acre retail theme park to be partly built on state land Miami-Dade is securing to sell to developer Triple Five. The land deal was set for a vote by the Florida Cabinet Tuesday, and Gimenez traveled to Tallahassee to advocate for what turned out to be a unanimous vote in favor of the project.
“The mayor could not attend the meeting today due to his travel to Tallahassee. The meeting will be rescheduled,” Gimenez spokesman Michael Hernández said of the Baylink panel, part of the county's Metropolitan Planning Organization. “Baylink, along with projects that will improve east-west connectivity, are transit priorities.”
The Baylink dust-up comes as Miami-Dade's transportation woes are getting more political attention. Baylink would be an alternative to the bus routes that run between Miami and Miami Beach, and the working plan is to build a rail attached to the MacArthur Causeway and then extend the system onto streets on both ends.
But while Baylink offers a new cross-bay route to South Beach, Miami-Dade’s transit system faces an ongoing budget squeeze and demands to expand cheaper alternatives, like express buses, to the west and north. Raquel Regalado said Baylink “doesn’t respond to the transportation needs of residents.”
One potential funding source for Baylink would be the county's half-percent transit sales tax, which funds rail and bus operations throughout Miami-Dade. Miami-Dade voters approved it in 2002, but elected leaders later said the revenue wouldn’t be enough to fund most of the projects promised during the campaign for what’s often called the “half-penny” transportation tax. Baylink was one of the projects promised in 2002, but it’s now listed as “on hold” by the transit-tax oversight board.
Regalado said the transit tax shouldn’t be used for Baylink. Instead, she endorsed using county hotel taxes, often called bed taxes, for the rail expansion. As a rail running between Miami-Dade's largest hotel markets — Miami Beach and downtown Miami —Baylink could be considered a tourist amenity, she said.
“I was not saying it was a bad project,” Regalado said of her morning remarks, which came at the end of a 45-minute talk after she mentioned nobody had asked her about Baylink. “I just don't think it should be a local-taxpayer priority.”
Her father said he also did not want the transit tax used for Baylink. “We should take a hard look at tourist-development dollars,” Mayor Regalado said, citing the technical name for one of three hotel taxes charged in Miami-Dade. “"It makes sense. It is a tourist-driven project.”
A July summary of some broad financial options for Baylink contemplated using hotel taxes to subsidize the system. The problem: Baylink was expected to cost as much as $45 million to operate and maintain each year, and even more when debt service is included. The report estimated a dedicated hotel tax would only generate about $10 million a year.
Transit consultants suggested adding a $1 or $2 toll to the MacArthur and Julia Tuttle causeways to pay for Baylink, which would be enough to both build the facility and subsidize it. But Levine and Gimenez shot that down when the proposal was floated at a public meeting last summer. One option is to create a taxing district that would divert new property-tax revenue to Baylink, or offer public land and operating subsidies to a private company willing to finance construction and run the system.
The Regalados already are on the other side of Gimenez on another high-profile transit project. Both opposed Gimenez's push to bring a Tri-Rail station to downtown Miami, with most of the $69 million cost coming from the city and a city-controlled taxing district. Mayor Regalado threatened to veto city funding, and Gimenez offered to bump the county's funding from about $8 million to $14 million in transit-tax revenue.
City commissioners voted in late March to pursue other sources of local funds beyond Miami and Miami-Dade.