Miami-Dade County

Lawsuit: County squandered $1.5 billion of transit tax promised for Metrorail growth

Passengers board the new Metrorail trains at the Miami International Airport terminal, the lone expansion of the train system implemented since Miami-Dade voters approved a half-percent sales tax in 2002 dedicated to transportation.
Passengers board the new Metrorail trains at the Miami International Airport terminal, the lone expansion of the train system implemented since Miami-Dade voters approved a half-percent sales tax in 2002 dedicated to transportation. Miami Herald file photo

Miami-Dade’s increasingly heated debate over how to reconcile broken transit pledges will be moving to court, with a Coral Gables commissioner suing the county and its mayor over using a voter-approved transportation tax to subsidize existing transit rather than expand it.

A half-percent sales tax voters approved in 2002 was linked to promises of more Metrorail corridors and expanded bus service. But Metrorail only grew by three miles, and Miami-Dade has cut bus routes. Meanwhile, the county relies on the 16-year-old tax to subsidize transit operations that existed before it passed.

“Defendants have diverted over a billion and a half dollars of sales surtax proceeds ... for purposes other than those authorized by the ballot measure,” reads the introduction to the lawsuit Commissioner Vince Lago and two other plaintiffs filed against Miami-Dade and Mayor Carlos Gimenez.

The plaintiffs are represented by Xavier Suarez, a Miami-Dade commissioner and top Gimenez foe who is fighting the mayor’s plan to bring “rapid-transit” buses to South Dade where Metrorail had been promised.

Gimenez issued a statement Monday that noted the transit budget allocations were adopted each year by the commission, as required by state and county law. He seemed to allude to Suarez publicly backing Rafael Pineyro, a challenger to Commissioner Jose “Pepe” Diaz, over Diaz’s support of Gimenez’s bus plan for South Dade.

“The lawsuit, coming on the first day of Early Voting, smacks of a political stunt,” Gimenez said. “It’s more hot air and bluster from detractors than any substance.”

At issue in the litigation is a decision by the Miami-Dade commission in 2008 under then-mayor Carlos Alvarez to plug budget holes caused by a collapse in property-tax revenue with transportation-tax dollars that otherwise would be available for transit projects. Gimenez took office in 2011, led the roll back of an unpopular property-tax increase by Alvarez, and continued the practice of using the “half-penny” tax to subsidize transit operations.

Gimenez has issued long-range budget plans that have the subsidy dropping dramatically, but his proposed spending plan for 2019 includes $95 million for operations in a $680 million transit budget.

The suit in Miami-Dade Circuit Court asks a judge to block the county from using transportation taxes to balance the budget, meaning the operational subsidies would need to be stripped from the proposed spending plan. That would require steep spending cuts, since the commission, including Suarez, has already approved the mayor’s recommendation for flat property-tax rates in 2019.

Even if a judge declines to restrict the budget options of the mayor and the 13-member commission, the lawsuit promises to ratchet up the political drama around transit in Miami-Dade.

Lago also sits on the county’s Transportation Planning Organization, and is opposing Gimenez’s plan for a South Dade rapid-transit bus line designed to mimic the perks of rail.

That includes custom-made buses designed for group boarding and iconic stations with advanced ticket sales and platforms that don’t require passengers to step up to the vehicles. The 2002 transportation plan included a Metrorail line extension for that route, along the South Dade busway, along with one heading north to Broward on 27th Avenue.

A recent analysis released by Gimenez’s Transportation department warned extending Metrorail 20 miles south would cost more than $1 billion and cost $67 million a year to operate — nearly doubling Metrorail’s current $76 million operating cost for the 25-mile system. The new Metrorail line would eat up about 75 cents of every dollar the Gimenez administration said is available for new transit projects over the next 40 years.

Joining Lago as plaintiffs in the suit are former Pinecrest mayor Cindy Lerner, a self-described “warrior for rail” in South Dade, and Deltravis Williams, a frequent bus rider who joined a “Transit March” last year to protest county cuts in bus service.

The suit also falls during heightened tension between Gimenez and Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, who is Xavier Suarez’s son. Gimenez, a former city manager in Miami, has criticized the younger Suarez’s bid to expand the Miami mayor’s authority. Xavier Suarez is considering a run for county mayor in 2020, when term-limit rules will bar Gimenez from running for reelection.

Lago and Lerner are both seen as likely candidates to run for Suarez’s District 7 seat on the County Commission, which Gimenez held before becoming mayor in 2011. With Gimenez openly interested in holding office after 2020, there’s speculation he might seek his old commission seat as well.

This post was updated to add Lerner as a potential Miami-Dade commission candidate in 2020.

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