Miami-Dade County

Miami Commission headed for Tri-Rail showdown with mayor

A rendering of the All Aboard Florida MiamiCentral station in downtown Miami
A rendering of the All Aboard Florida MiamiCentral station in downtown Miami

A push to use millions in public funds to bring commuter trains from Palm Beach and Broward counties to downtown Miami may lead to a showdown next week between the Miami City Commission and Mayor Tomás Regalado, who says he will veto any attempt to pay for the project with city money.

Documents published Wednesday by the city clerk’s office show commissioners are scheduled to vote March 26 on a proposal to have Miami’s city manager negotiate a “financial assistance package” with Tri-Rail’s publicly funded parent company, the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority. If approved, the city manager would help pull together the $69 million to connect and build a Tri-Rail terminus at the private All Aboard Florida transit hub downtown, and then bring the package back to the commission for a subsequent vote on April 9.

All Aboard Florida executives say they can wait only a few more weeks for Tri-Rail to secure the required funding before they have to solidify the plans to move forward with construction and begin running trains by the end of 2016. If those plans don’t include Tri-Rail infrastructure, it’s likely the end of any talk about bringing Tri-Rail trains to downtown Miami and back up the FEC rail line, because of the prohibitive cost of buying land.

Some Miami commissioners say they shouldn’t let that happen, even if it means ponying up millions. The proposal before commissioners next week calls on the city to contribute as much as $11 million toward the project. Another $20 million would be paid by the state, $8 million potentially by Miami-Dade County, and presumably $29 million paid back to Tri-Rail in the form of rebated property taxes paid by All Aboard Florida and kicked back by the Overtown community redevelopment agency.

“I think you have to have the debate regarding mass transit in the city of Miami. It’s something that affects me in my district,” said Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, who represents downtown. “If not this plan, then what plan?”

Tri-Rail executives, who met as recently as Monday evening with Miami administrators, issued a statement through a spokeswoman that they “look forward to working with the city.”

But Regalado says Sarnoff’s proposal — crafted by attorneys representing Tri-Rail — is even worse than an earlier proposal by Tri-Rail to have the city guarantee a loan to finance improvements with property-tax rebates. Regalado said he’s going to campaign on Spanish radio and television against Sarnoff’s proposal, and will veto any item even if it passes and commissioners have the four requisite votes to override him.

“Even if it’s symbolic, I will go out to the people of Miami and explain to them another bad deal that the city wants to enter into,” Regalado said.

Whether that will happen remains to be seen.

Appearing on the Gray Zone radio show Wednesday morning on 880 AM The Biz, Commissioner Francis Suarez said that he was still mulling Sarnoff’s newly released proposal, but that he believes bringing Tri-Rail to Miami is a priority in order to alleviate gridlock. Commission Chairman Wifredo “Willy” Gort and Commissioner Frank Carollo said they couldn’t comment on the resolution because they hadn’t yet seen it.

Commissioner Keon Hardemon recently told the Miami Herald that he wants to see Tri-Rail downtown, on the border of Overtown, one of Miami’s poorest communities. He said Tri-Rail leaders have told him Overtown residents would ride for free, and while he wouldn’t predict victory over Regalado’s veto, he wasn’t dissuaded by the mayor’s stance either.

“Tomás doesn’t vote here, he vetoes. Can you overturn a veto?” Hardemon asked hypothetically.

Still, Regalado said he won’t stop campaigning against the issue, even if commissioners override his veto.

“One thing they can not override,” he said, “is my bully pulpit.”

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