Miami-Dade County

Pursuing a rail expansion, Miami-Dade mayor polls voters on increasing transit tax

Airport passengers and commuters board the MIA Metrorail at the airport, the only expansion of the county rail system funded by a half-percent sales tax voters approved in 2002.
Airport passengers and commuters board the MIA Metrorail at the airport, the only expansion of the county rail system funded by a half-percent sales tax voters approved in 2002.

Miami-Dade voters are narrowly divided on a higher sales tax to improve transit, according to a poll commissioned by Miami-Dade’s mayor as he pursues a historic, costly expansion of rail.

The survey by Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s political committee marks the second time in recent weeks that he has floated the idea of increasing the county’s half-percent transportation sales tax to a full percent in order to fund a rail expansion expected to cost about $6 billion.

And while the recently re-elected leader has said he does not favor raising the tax, his chief pollster said the results show the option as politically viable. With 600 likely voters polled countywide last week, 48 percent of the respondents supported a higher tax and 50 percent opposed it.

“It’s encouraging,” said Dario Moreno, a Florida International University politics professor. “I was shocked by the numbers. I thought it would be at least 55 to 58 percent opposed.”

The poll, conducted between March 13 and 19, roughly coincided with a Gimenez memo that floated the idea of increasing the transportation tax or boosting property taxes to pay for the county’s “SMART” plan for expanding transit.

On March 7, Gimenez wrote a memo to the county commission on funding options for the 80-mile SMART expansion and said “we may want to consider enhancing the revenues available by dedicating a higher countywide millage rate and/or assessing another half-penny for transportation purposes.”

Gimenez downplayed the notion of a tax increase in public statements after the memo was publicized, saying: “I am not recommending a tax increase to fund the SMART Plan.”

Thursday night, Gimenez said one of his main interests in the poll was to gauge support for using technology -- such as driverless cars-- to address Miami-Dade’s chronic gridlock. The results showed the concept was popular, with 58 percent in favor and 34 percent opposed.

As for the transit tax question, Gimenez said it shouldn’t be viewed as showing any interest on his part for raising taxes.

“I was just curious,” he said. “I am not going to propose a [new] tax.”

The poll, which included questions on Gimenez’s popularity and satisfaction with county government, was paid for by Miami-Dade Residents First, the Gimenez committee that helped finance his 2016 re-election campaign. The inclusion of the transportation-tax question — and the release of the poll results — show the mayor and his political team at least weighing the odds of the public agreeing to pay more for improved transit.

Michael Hernández, communications director for Miami-Dade, did not rule out a tax increase but said the mayor doesn’t see the need for one.

“While Mayor Gimenez will entertain options on how to finance an expansion of mass transit — and make the SMART plan a reality — ultimately, he does not think a local tax increase is necessary to fund it,” Hernández said.

A consultant’s report puts the development cost for the SMART plan at $6 billion, with operating expenses approaching $1 million a day. Miami-Dade does not have close to the money needed to fund even a portion of that but is hoping that Washington will pick up a significant portion of the tab. By doubling the transit tax, Miami-Dade could create a significant source of local dollars.

Even with the narrow margin in last week’s poll, Moreno and others in Gimenez’s camp said they see a higher transit tax as unable to pass in the current political climate. The potential tax starts with a slim majority of voters against it, well before the inevitable campaign that would rise up to try and block it.

One of the most reliable voting blocs in Miami-Dade, Cuban Americans, is overwhelmingly opposed to the higher tax, with 66 percent against it and 32 percent in favor. On the other hand, there’s strong backing by African Americans (60 percent support, 39 percent oppose) and non-Hispanic whites (67 percent support, 32 percent oppose).

The ethnic breakdown suggests that a higher transit tax would have the best shot in a presidential election, when turnout from African Americans tends to surge. That sets up in some political consultants’ minds a scenario in which the outgoing mayor might campaign for a transit tax in his last year in office in 2020, when term limits bar Gimenez from running for re-election.

The Moreno poll shows that Gimenez is extremely popular, with a 71 percent approval rating — and 74 percent from Cuban Americans for the Cuban-born mayor first elected in 2011.

Gimenez’s political advisers say no such campaign has been discussed. And while a higher transit tax seems like a daunting political lift at the moment, the numbers aren’t quite as grim as they expected. “We all thought it was going to be lopsided,” said Jesse Manzano-Plaza, Gimenez’s campaign manager. “It wasn’t.”

Voters passed the original half-percent tax in 2002 when county leaders promised a rail expansion similar to the SMART blueprint.

Nearly 15 years later, the county has expanded Metrorail by less than three miles, with a new route connecting Miami International Airport to the system.

The tax, which was advertised as financing both transit and road projects, has become a flashpoint as traffic has worsened. Esteban “Steve” Bovo, the commission’s chairman, frequently warns that voters might be ready to repeal the tax altogether, given the lack of progress on transit projects.

“If nothing happens,” the Hialeah-based politician said, “my community would be in support of rescinding the half-penny.”

Miami Herald staff writer Patricia Mazzei contributed to this report.