Three candidates for an open seat on the Miami-Dade commission share at least one position: disdain for that board's extended hand-wringing over how to expand Metrorail.
Whoever wins the May 22 special election to replace Bruno Barreiro representing parts of Miami and Miami Beach on the 13-member County Commission will be thrust into the debate over what to do with the 2016 SMART Plan — an ongoing analysis of six potential rail corridors costing Miami-Dade and Florida up to $50 million in consultant fees for the studies alone. One of the studies looks at the potential of reviving plans forBaylink, the light rail system connecting Miami and Miami Beach that's been debated for nearly 20 years.
"There's too much pie-in-the-sky thinking. Too much paralysis by analysis," former state senator Alex Diaz de la Portilla told the Miami Herald Editorial Board on Monday during a question-and-answer session with candidates to fill the District 5 commission seat that Bruno Barreiro vacated to run for Congress. "Metrorail corridors that we're never going to build. We don't have the money to build."
"If we wait until the final solution when everything is going to line up, it's never going to happen," said Zoraida Barreiro, a healthcare executive who is running to succeed her husband.
"There's a lot of operational things that don't cost those billions of dollars," said Eileen Higgins, a community activist running for office for the first time. "Dedicated bus lanes — the reason that might work more than light rail going across Baylink [is] if you can get across the two causeways in a dedicated bus lane, you can pick up the city of Miami Beach's trolleys. I do it all the time."
Both Barreiro and Diaz de la Portilla stopped short of suggesting Baylink not be a priority — both hedged their skepticism about the future prospects of rail in Miami-Dade by endorsing the one SMART Plan corridor that runs through District 5.
But the refusal to call for expanding Metrorail in the joint interviews captures the ongoing weariness with a transportation plan unveiled to much political fanfare in 2016. Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who ran a reelection ad that year calling for "More Rail Lines," has since shifted to advocating for dedicated lanes for high-tech express buses as a cheaper alternative to Metrorail running north and south.
Diaz de la Portilla picked up on that theme, saying Miami-Dade should focus on expanding bus service that "real people" rely on in the district, which stretches from Little Havana to South Beach. Barreiro said she wanted no changes to the free fares offered by Miami-Dade's cash-strapped transit system, pointing to a failed effort in 2016 to start charging passengers again to ride Metromover. Higgins touted the popularity of free city trolleys, subsidized by the county's half-percent transportation sales tax, and said she wanted to expand them throughout suburban Miami-Dade.
One candidate for the District 5 race did not appear for the afternoon Editorial Board session: broadcaster Carlos Garin.
Among the highlights from the joint appearance:
▪ Workforce housing: Only Higgins came out clearly for requiring developers to either create affordable units in their projects or pay the county to be exempted from the rules — a plan the County Commission voted down in late 2016. "We need to have inclusive zoning," she said. "If they don't want workforce housing in their fancy buildings, which is fine, they pay into the affordable-housing trust fund."
"I'd hate to do mandatory anything," Barreiro said.
Diaz de la Portilla said he wouldn't be a supporter of the 2016 plan, sponsored by Commissioner Barbara Jordan. "I'd probably vote against it," he said. Even so, he described a very similar framework of workforce-housing rules: mandating set-asides in new projects, then allowing developers to buy their way out of the requirements. But he said he would link the construction of the workforce units to allowing higher density on projects — which the county already offers through a Jordan plan that was passed after the mandatory rules failed. "I haven't read the Barbara Jordan proposal," he said.
▪Property taxes: Diaz de la Portilla was the only one to rule out voting for an increase in the county's property-tax rate. Higgins did not answer the question directly, but said she would vote against a 2018 statewide ballot initiative that would increase the homestead tax break for a person's primary residence. "I'm sure there will be lots of people that will vote for reducing their property taxes," she said. "They just don't understand that what they're doing by voting Yes for that is they're voting to reduce county and city services."
Barreiro said she would have to look at "what we're going through as a county" but did say an increase isn't needed for 2019.
"I would rule it out," Diaz de la Portilla said. "Let's get our house in order before we start taxing people."
▪The Gimenez and Carollo factors: A son and daughter-in-law of Gimenez have signed on to the Diaz de la Portilla campaign. Lobbyist C.J. Gimenez and his wife, Tania Cruz, are volunteers for the campaign, Diaz de la Portilla said. The three supported Joe Carollo's successful run for the Miami City Commission last year, a race that saw the former Miami mayor defeat Zoraida Barreiro in her first run for public office.
Carollo and Gimenez have yet to say publicly who they are backing in the county race.
▪ Lobbyist ties: Diaz de la Portilla said he would recuse himself from voting on any matters involving clients of his lobbyist brother, Miguel Diaz de la Portilla. The former county commissioner who also succeeded Alex in the state Senate represents the developers behind the American Dream Miami mega-mall project. "I will recuse myself from any activity involving my brother," he said.