Miami-Dade County

Demand for Metrorail expansion is met with a warning

Airport passengers and commuters board Metrorail at Miami Internationaal Airport. The three-mile extension to the airport, opened in 2012, was the only expansion of the rail system delivered after voters in 2002 agreed to a new half-percent transportation tax that came with promises of multiple new Metrorail routes.
Airport passengers and commuters board Metrorail at Miami Internationaal Airport. The three-mile extension to the airport, opened in 2012, was the only expansion of the rail system delivered after voters in 2002 agreed to a new half-percent transportation tax that came with promises of multiple new Metrorail routes. cmguerrero@elnuevoherald.com

Miami-Dade’s ongoing transit fight broke into a pair of distinct camps on Tuesday, with county commissioners demanding a $1.5 billion expansion of Metrorail north and south of Miami and the mayor’s budget guru warning a tax hike would be needed to pay for it.

Commissioners on a countywide transportation board voted nearly unanimously to recommend pumping more property taxes into Miami-Dade’s transit budget through the next decade. That would fund rail extensions costing about $1.5 billion to construct and virtually double the distance traveled by the current Metrorail system.

“It’s time to deliver,” said Rebeca Sosa, one of nine commissioners who attended the meeting of the county’s Transportation Planning Organization, which oversees federal transportation dollars. “It’s time to tell this community we’re serious about what we’re doing. … It’s time for us to grow up, and represent Miami-Dade County as a whole.”

In July, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez announced a scaled-back plan to move SMART forward: Spend roughly $534 million in county and state dollars to create modernized express routes on the North and South corridors, with vehicles running on dedicated lanes and allowing for some rail-like perks, including group boarding and pre-ticketing. Commissioners lambasted the idea as another betrayal of past promises to expand Metrorail, and Tuesday’s vote served as a formal break with the Gimenez plan.

“I say let’s go for it,” Commissioner Dennis Moss said of the rail plan for the North and South corridors. “If we fall short, at least we’re falling short in trying to make a difference, and trying to bring enhanced transportation to this community.”

Tuesday’s vote by the transportation board delivers only symbolism: It technically urges the County Commission itself to approve a long-term financing strategy for the SMART Plan — the 2016 initiative to develop rapid-transit options along six of Miami-Dade’s busiest commuting corridors. The only no vote for the financig strategy came from Commissioner Javier Souto.

Given the overlap in membership of the transportation board and the 13-member County Commission, the vote carries extra heft when it comes to predicting future Miami-Dade spending decisions. It also marks the first time the transportation board has picked favored routes for the SMART Plan. The vote endorses expanding Metrorail nine miles at street level along Northwest 27th Avenue and 20 miles along the South Dade busway, linking the system to Florida City in the south and Miami Gardens and the Broward County line to the north.

The transportation meeting came two days before commissioners face another transit fight: whether to approve about $30 million in cuts to Metrorail and the county bus system in 2018.

I say let’s go for it. If we fall short, at least we’re falling short in trying to make a difference, and trying to bring enhanced transportation to this community.

Miami-Dade Commissioner Dennis Moss

Commissioners have scheduled a final vote Thursday evening on Gimenez’s proposed $7.4 billion budget for the fiscal year that begins Sunday. The spending plan almost died last week before a commissioner switched sides during a preliminary vote. Commissioners on the No side cited the transit cuts in opposing the Gimenez budget, and the mayor said he would work to address the concerns.

Existing shortfalls help explain why Miami-Dade currently can’t afford the north-and-south rail plan. There’s at least an $18 million yearly gap between operating costs and existing revenues, even with the extra property tax revenue. And Jennifer Moon, the county’s longtime budget chief and a top Gimenez aide, warned against the strategy, saying it uses so much property-tax money that future commissions will have no choice but to raise rates on taxpayers to fund the rest of the government.

“It ultimately means less additional property-tax revenue” for county needs beyond transit, Moon said. “At the end of the day … you are saying you are going to support an increase in property taxes in order to fund it, if you’re not going to be eliminating other services in order to fund this.”

The argument largely captured the tension between Miami-Dade’s transit ambitions and its budget realities. Gimenez unveiled the SMART Plan during his 2016 reelection campaign, when he aired a campaign commercial touting more rail lines featuring him on a Metrorail car. A consultant’s study estimated it would cost $6 billion to build the six SMART corridors and nearly $100 million a day to run them.

Construction on the SMART Plan wouldn’t start for at least two years, and the 2018 budget only has money for engineering studies linked to the effort. But the two debates are connected: Commissioners on Tuesday endorsed a five-year budget forecast that includes the higher level of property-tax dollars for transit.

“Sooner or later the board of county commissioners is going to have to raise taxes to cash the check you’re writing today,” said Commissioner Joe Martinez, the dissenting voice on the SMART financial strategy (he stepped away from the dais before the vote).

You are saying you are going to support an increase in property taxes in order to fund it.

Miami-Dade budget director Jennifer Moon

Moon said the budget forecast endorsed by the transportation board was based on faulty math that inadvertently sent hundreds of millions of dollars in property-tax revenue to transit over the next 40 years. While the budget office plans to correct the budget forecast, the transportation board’s recommendation is to force the Gimenez administration to stick with the original projections.

The forecasts aren’t binding, since the County Commission has the authority to write a new budget each year. And Miami-Dade wouldn’t have to reconcile its funding numbers until it actually sets out to borrow money for a rail project or hire a firm to build something. For now, the debate largely hinges on what theoretical spending plan the county should pursue on transit.

Miami-Dade subsidizes transit operations and construction with two sources of local money: the half-percent sales tax voters approved in 2002 after being promised an historic expansion of the 25-mile Metrorail system, and the general fund, which is a pool of county dollars dominated by property taxes. The general fund pays for most core county services, including parks and police.

The county hasn’t raised its countywide property-tax rate since Carlos Alvarez was mayor in 2010, and Gimenez took office the next year on a promise to roll back the increase, which he did.

While Moon warned of higher property-tax rates to pay for a costlier SMART Plan than Gimenez wants, the chairman of the transportation board brushed off her analysis. Esteban “Steve” Bovo, who serves as chairman of the County Commission and the transportation board, expressed frustration at the Gimenez administration having a monopoly on budget information and its ability to switch numbers when it suited the argument.

“The moment that we have a financial plan in front of us, now all of a sudden we have Armageddon. The sun will not come up tomorrow. We have math errors, now,” Bovo said. “The day that Jennifer gets sick, this building is going to tilt. Because she holds all the information. This is not a slam on her. It’s just a fact.”

Transportation board member Francis Suarez, a Miami commissioner expected to be the city’s next mayor, said he was glad to see support for a financial plan that gets the county closer to finally expanding rail.

“To come up with a plan … that is just $18 million short is incredible,” he said. “We have a good start, a good framework.”

This post was updated to correct the vote results from Tuesday’s Transportation Planning Organization meeting, with Commissioner Javier Souto voting no.

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