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Metrorail projects going far off-track

Miami-Dade County voters who supported a half-cent sales tax in 2002 with the expectation of widespread Metrorail expansion better brace themselves.

A new report released Wednesday by Mayor Carlos Alvarez's administration says the county will need to generate $9.4 billion more over the next 30 years to support Miami-Dade Transit -- including three linked Metrorail projects collectively known as the Orange Line.

The figure is all the more staggering because it's above and beyond the current level of property taxes, fares and sales taxes that support the deficit-plagued agency.

"It is evident that very different funding approaches are now required to sustain the Orange Line build-out, " said County Manager George Burgess. The Orange Line consists of a 9.5-mile North Corridor that would run along Northwest 27th Avenue from 81st Street to the Broward border; a 2.4-mile spur from the Earlington Heights station to a transit hub being built just east of Miami International Airport and a 10- to 13-mile East-West line from the airport to the suburbs near Florida International University.

The report comes a month after a Miami Herald investigation showed how Miami-Dade has failed to deliver most of the key promises of the 2002 sales-tax campaign.

Instead of "New Money for New Projects, " most of the money has been spent on routine operations. Hundreds of millions of new dollars were reallocated to repair old problems, upgrading trains and fare-box equipment that wasn't properly maintained for the two decades prior to the vote, the newspaper found.

JULY 31 DEADLINE

The new report was released on the eve of a key County Commission debate over fare increases and the future of the Orange Line.

County commissioners are facing a July 31 deadline to submit a complete financial plan to federal regulators or risk losing more than $1.4 billion in matching funds for the proposed North and East-West corridors.

At this point, the only line likely to be built is the $526 million Earlington Heights/Airport connector spur because it is using only local and state funds.

In February, federal analysts downgraded Miami-Dade's annual rating on the North Corridor to a level where it no longer qualifies to compete for matching funds. The reason: inadequate local, long-term funding to modernize and maintain the current and expanded system.

PROPOSALS

The administration is asking commissioners to adopt a smorgasbord of politically unappetizing election-year options to fill the $9.4 billion funding gap. They include:

* Increasing base fares by 50 cents, and monthly passes from $75 to $100.

A plan by Commissioner Barbara Jordan would also depoliticize future fare increases. Instead of subjecting them to a commission vote, fares would be adjusted every three years based on the agency's operating costs.

Alvarez's administration is proposing a slightly different option that will be submitted to federal regulators later this month. It calls for increasing fares by 50 cents this year, and then in 25-cent increments every five years starting in 2022.

"While I understand that a fare increase is being proposed at a difficult time for the transit-dependent population, there is no choice if we are to support our existing system, much less pursue the expansion program, " Burgess said.

* Raising monthly parking fees at Metrorail stations and park-and-ride lots. Burgess described the current $6.25 monthly rate as "artificially low."

Jordan is pushing a plan that would raise those fees to $10 next year. The administration is proposing increasing the fees to $15 by 2017 and $20 by 2027.

TAXES

* Increasing the local-option gasoline tax by 2 cents a gallon, which would raise another $11 million a year for transit starting in 2012.

* Significantly hiking the county's property-tax support to the transit agency. Miami-Dade provides $141 million a year in property taxes to transit and is required to increase that amount by 3.5 percent each year.

While it's not defined as a percentage, the spreadsheets show the county's property-tax subsidy to transit could rise at a dizzying pace, from $154 million in 2010 to $781 million in 2035. That sort of change would put a huge drain on other county programs but would improve the likelihood of widespread mass-transit improvements.

Jordan said Wednesday she isn't even sure there will be seven votes to pass a basic fare increase. "I'm hoping, but we'll have to wait and see, " she said. "It was close before, and it's still close."

OTHER OPTIONS

Several of the items on Burgess' menu of options would also break core promises that county leaders made to voters who supported the half-percent sales tax increase in 2002.

They include:

* Phasing out the 20 percent cut of sales-tax revenues that the county shares with 31 municipalities by 2015.

This would be highly unpopular and complicated by the fact that several cities, including Miami, Hialeah and Key Biscayne, have already issued bonds backed by sales-tax proceeds.

* Passing legislation that would end the distinction between "old" and "new" projects so the administration could use all the sales-tax money for any transit-agency expense it chooses.

Critics say that Burgess' continuing call to "unify" the transit agency's revenues will be inviting an organized campaign by opponents to repeal the sales tax.

"That would probably be the last straw for people who say this has been nothing but a bait and switch, " said Marc Buoniconti, past chair of the citizens oversight panel.

Several commissioners have started openly questioning whether Miami-Dade should even be trying to fulfill the 2002 campaign promises, given the shaky financial options they are facing.

Commissioner Carlos Gimenez has said the time may have arrived for the county to consider scrapping the North Corridor and the proposed East-West line for a system of express buses that operate like trains.

Burgess noted that Bus Rapid Transit programs, similar to the South Dade Busway, could be developed for a lot less money and without as much need for federal aid as the Metrorail projects.

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