Commuters frustrated with Miami-Dade’s traffic woes and the diversion of money intended to pay for new mass transit routes may have a hero or a goat soon in their state government, depending on how things play out over the next few weeks.
Just past the midway point of Florida’s legislative session, a bill that seeks to shift nearly $100 million annually in voter-approved transit tax money out of transportation operations in order to fund new mass transit lines is moving through both chambers. The legislation would force the county to quickly honor a commitment made more than 15 years ago to use money from a “half-penny” sales tax to fund new commuter rail lines — which have mostly failed to materialize since the tax was approved.
Miami-Dade’s transportation department and some elected officials warn that the proposal would force drastic cuts and possibly the elimination of more than half of Miami-Dade’s bus routes. “It would have a devastating effect,” Mayor Carlos Gimenez said Thursday.
But the group of Miami lawmakers pushing the bill in the Florida House and Senate say that’s a worst-case scenario claim by a government that’s ignored the will of the voters for more than a decade and left the region with a worsening traffic problem.
“If Dade County was doing what they need to be doing, we wouldn’t be in this situation, having to correct a wrong,” Senate bill sponsor René García, R-Hialeah, said in an interview. “A bag was pulled over our heads.”
This year, the half-percentage sales tax approved in 2002 by Miami-Dade voters will generate about $250 million, and the terms of the referendum allow the county to spend the money on roads, expanding bus and rail operations and expenses tied to new services. It was billed as a tax needed to bring an historic expansion in transit, including Metrorail lines running north, south and west into Miami’s car-clogged suburbs.
But the ability of the tax to finance new projects was oversold. And county leaders further undercut transit expansions when they chose to use the half-percent tax to fill a budget hole during the Great Recession by shifting tax dollars into existing salaries and other operational costs. In 2015, less than 40 percent of the money generated by the tax went toward new projects and other capital costs.
More than 15 years later, Metrorail has expanded by just three miles — when it connected to Miami International Airport in 2012.
A promised doubling of the county’s bus fleet also did not materialize, although the county did deliver on free Metromover service, an expansion of its Golden Passport free transit passes and a new network of free municipal trolleys run by cities and subsidized by about 20 cents of every dollar collected from the tax.
Facing pressure to spend the money as originally promised, the county’s long-term budget forecast calls for swapping out the sales tax for property taxes to help subsidize transit operations and fund expansions. While the half-percent tax covers about $99 million worth of transit operations in the current budget, the county projects it will plunge to about $10 million a year by 2023 as it weans itself off the tax and begins to make larger debt payments to cover transit-related debt tied to a $380 million purchase of new Metrorail cars, as well as buses and early expansion efforts under the county’s SMART transit plan.
In Tallahassee last month, Alice Bravo, director of county Transportation and Public Works, warned that the bill would force her department to eliminate 54 bus routes in order to cut costs if the legislation forces the county to immediately divest its operations accounts of surtax money. Even that wouldn’t be enough — Bravo said Thursday the remaining 40 or so routes would end Friday and not resume until Monday. “There would be no buses on the weekends,” she said.
A department analysis shared with county commissioners said another possibility was extending the average wait time for buses from 20 minutes to a full hour.
At a committee meeting in Miami on Thursday, Commissioner Rebeca Sosa said it’s unfair to punish bus riders who would suffer from immediate cuts under the proposed legislation.
“We will have no other options but to shut down bus routes,” she said. “There a lot of people who depend on the bus. Seniors who use the bus every day. Those who have to go and clean hotels and everything. They use those bus routes. Some of them don’t have cars.”
The legislation is a variation on a theme in which Miami’s legislative delegation has sought to change state law in order to force the county and local transportation authorities to spend money in a way they deem more effective and appropriate. The bill has been traveling through committees during the first half of the ongoing session. Though some have concerns about the timing of the changes, the concept has bipartisan support among lawmakers who are keenly aware of voter discontent over the handling of the tax and lack of new transit options.
Initially, county officials fought to kill the bill. But now they’re trying to massage its contents by pushing for a transitional period.
“Sometimes you rip off the Band-Aid and the pain is too much,” Bravo said back during the first week of session.
Garcia and House co-sponsor Rep. Bryan Avila, R-Hialeah, told the Miami Herald Thursday that they’re listening to the county’s concerns, though Garcia said he’s “taken offense” at suggestions that Tallahassee is meddling in Miami’s affairs. Right now, both the house and Senate bills would require an immediate divestment in 2019 should the legislation become law, and neither seemed inclined to adopt the county’s longer time line.
Avila temporarily postponed the hearing of his bill before the House’s Government Accountability Committee Thursday morning, saying he wants to keep talking with county officials and work in language to require a performance audit for any future surtax increase proposals.
“Where they want a five-year phase-out, we are looking at anywhere from one to two [years] and trying to really expedite the process in terms of making sure the funds that were promised to the residents of Miami-Dade County toward transportation are going there,” Avila said.