Miami-Dade County

Gimenez pushes privatization of county’s transit future

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez
Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez el Nuevo Herald

Saying “I don’t want to operate anything,” Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez is touting the benefits of tapping private operators for new transit systems that could include a light-rail system he wants to traverse two bridges between Miami and Miami Beach.

Speaking at a privatization conference in Miami, Gimenez said he’s counting on the efficiency of the private sector to keep operating expenses low for Miami-Dade as it pursues ambitious new rail projects. He said tapping private companies to finance, build and manage the new systems will require elected leaders to reject the current thinking that government operations should be run by government employees.

“It used to be Miami-Dade County wanted to operate everything,” Gimenez said Friday. “I don’t want to operate anything.”

His comments came during Gimenez’s second-day at the P3 Pipeline conference at Florida International University’s Biscayne campus. The event drew firms pursuing government projects that are built using a “private-public partnership” or P3 — an umbrella term that typically involves a for-profit company providing the construction money up front for a public project, then making its profit through a string of payments from the government that can last for decades.

With traffic getting more political attention, Miami-Dade leaders are under pressure to expand the county’s transit options. One under consideration is to offer private transit developers access to property taxes from land along new routes, with new revenues dedicated to payments for the project. Gimenez and others are calling for a new commuter rail to the west and south, as well as introducing more bus routes with dedicated lanes to speed travel through traffic.

County Commissioner Dennis Moss, a traditional ally of government unions, described himself as open to letting companies to replace county departments when it comes to operating new transit systems.

“My first preference would be to have the county employees operate the expansion. But I will listen,” said Moss, a reliable pro-union vote on the commission. “Because we are now trying to really jump-start the expansion of our transportation system, I think we have to take a look at all options.”

Advocates tout P3 projects as relieving government of both the burden and risk of financing projects themselves — as well as the costs of using public employees to operate the projects. Critics see the P3 model as an overly complicated way to give private companies access to hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes under the misguided perception that government can’t be trusted to manage something efficiently.

“If it makes sense and it’s affordable and it’s a benefit to the taxpayers, it’s not something we can argue,” said Andy Madtes, executive director of AFSCME Council 979, which represents county workers. “But oftentimes, we find that’s not the case.”

A 2014 consultant’s study for a planned P3 to build a new water-treatment plant in South Miami Heights found operating costs would be as much as 16 percent lower than a government-operated plant thanks to a private company spending less to manage the facility. But overall, the study by Public Resources Advisory Group found the project would cost more through the P3 model because of financing costs that would be 20 percent higher than if the government used the traditional model of using borrowed money to pay a contractor to build it for the county water department.

At the P3 Pipeline event, Gimenez and some of his top aides laid out an extensive menu of possible private-public projects for Miami-Dade. Those include turning over the downtown Miami library branch campus, which includes the History Miami complex, to high-rise developers to create a project that could house both institutions, the South Florida Business Journal reported.

Gimenez delivered the keynote address when the conference opened Thursday, and returned Friday to participate in a transportation panel. During the talk, Gimenez revealed his expanded view on the long-stalled BayLink effort, a light-rail system proposed to link downtown Miami with Miami Beach.

Currently envisioned as a link over the MacArthur Causeway alone, Gimenez said he is considering a light-rail system that also crosses the Julia Tuttle Causeway in order to allow for a northern circuit that would include both the Design District and the Fontainebleau Resort.

“On the city side, you would have a loop that would take you into the Design District and to Midtown, which is a rapidly growing area of Miami,” Gimenez said. “Then on the Miami Beach side you would be able to go all the way up to, say, the Fontainebleau hotel, which is the largest hotel they have over there.”

While Miami and Miami Beach would operate the rail systems on either end, Miami-Dade would run the causeway link or links that “connects the whole thing,” Gimenez said. He suggested some sort of private concession to operate the county’s portion, but wouldn’t describe the arrangement he had in mind.

“I have some ideas,” he said, “but I’m not ready to say what they are now.”