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How an obscure Miami-Dade transit board may snag $95 million to expand Metrorail

The 25-mile Metrorail system has only expanded about three  miles since Miami-Dade voters approved a transportation tax in 2002 that now generates nearly $300 million a year. A transportation board is trying to force a dramatic shift in funding to transit projects.
The 25-mile Metrorail system has only expanded about three miles since Miami-Dade voters approved a transportation tax in 2002 that now generates nearly $300 million a year. A transportation board is trying to force a dramatic shift in funding to transit projects. Miami Herald file photo

The Miami-Dade board that oversees the county’s half-percent transportation tax has launched an unprecedented attempt to cut off a $95 million subsidy of bus and rail operations in order to save the money for new transit projects.

It would be the first time the Citizens’ Independent Transportation Trust exercised its power to try to block the county from subsidizing operating costs with a tax that was intended to pay for expanding public transit. The tax generates roughly $290 million a year.

“Let’s just stop them from doing this,” board member Evan Fancher said before the Thursday vote to withdraw authorization for the County Commission to spend the tax on operating subsidies. “Let’s move forward.”

The board’s vote wouldn’t take effect for a year, meaning the funding shift would start in 2020. Miami-Dade commissioners can override the vote, but may need a two-thirds majority to keep the subsidy intact.

Passed by voters in 2002, the “half-penny” tax was billed as a historic source of dollars for expanding transit — including more bus routes and new rail corridors extending farther into the Miami suburbs and across Biscayne Bay to Miami Beach. Rules the County Commission attached to the new tax did allow it to subsidize operations, but only for new transit projects built by the tax..

Aside from a three-mile Metrorail extension to the airport, the large transit projects promised voters have largely failed to materialize. During a budget crisis brought on by the housing crash, the transit board in 2009 voted to lift the rule barring use of the transportation tax for existing transit operations.

“It was an emergency. There were tough times. There was a reason for it,” said Glenn Downing, the current chairman of the transportation board. “But the reason no longer remains.”

Budget pressure is the main force shaping next week’s showdown on the future of transit in Miami-Dade. That’s when a more powerful county board, the Transportation Planning Organization, is set to pick whether South Dade should get a new $1.3 billion 20-mile Metrorail route or an advanced rapid-transit bus system that costs about 80 percent less. Before it took a vote on the subsidy cut-off, the Citizens’ Independent Transportation Trust urged an extension of Metrorail about eight miles south to Cutler Ridge and use of rapid-transit bus lines to complete the rest of the link to Florida City.

The transportation board has already voted twice to pressure the County Commission to end the operating subsidies in order to start spending the money on transportation projects. But this is believed to be the first time it has voted to end the subsidy outright. County law gives the 13-member County Commission the option to adopt or reject the board’s decisions on how the transportation tax should be spent.

With a commission rejection, the transportation board would need to reaffirm its recommendation exactly as it was presented. If the plan passes again, it would then head back to the County Commission — with a catch. The commission could reject it a second time only with a two-thirds vote.

Because this has never happened before, Miami-Dade officials were mum Friday about the exact consequences if the board’s recommendation survives intact. The county attorney’s office declined to comment on the record.

The board’s action dovetails with a lawsuit arranged by Commissioner Xavier Suarez, a lawyer. Filed by a Coral Gables commissioner and others, it asks a judge to declare the operating subsidy a violation of the framework for the 2002 referendum.

The 2009 decision to allow operating subsidies helped stop the fiscal bleeding in transit, which relies on property taxes to fill budget holes. Transit systems lose money across the country, and in Miami-Dade passengers pay only about 25 cents of every dollar a trip costs.

For Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s proposed 2019 budget, the $715 million transportation budget has about $225 million from the “general fund” — a source of revenue that consists mostly of property taxes.

Gimenez’s budget ends the subsidy in 2023, banking on a surge in extra property taxes to fund the transit department. His transit chief, Alice Bravo, warned Friday that just cutting off the subsidy next year would mean severe austerity measures to compensate for the lost money. That’s bound to mean major cuts in transit, if not elsewhere in county government.

“It’s easy to make the recommendation. But nobody wants to step up and say where we should take it from,” Bravo said, using government shorthand for property taxes. “Either there’s a reduction in service provided by transit, or there would be a reduction in some other department, likes parks or public safety.”

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