Miami Beach

Miami Beach light rail discussion gets political as mayoral candidates spar

Commissioner Michael Grieco, also a mayoral candidate, listens to former state legislator and mayoral candidate Den Gelber at Wednesday’s commission meeting.
Commissioner Michael Grieco, also a mayoral candidate, listens to former state legislator and mayoral candidate Den Gelber at Wednesday’s commission meeting.

Even though the stalled light rail project in Miami Beach is on hold indefinitely, it’s playing a role in the early stages of this year’s mayoral race.

Commissioner Michael Grieco, who is running for mayor, at first was “all-in” on the project but then changed his mind last fall amid a wave of opposition from residents. He proposed returning $36 million earmarked for the project back to the five funds from which it came. The funds include resort tax money and tax dollars collected for the redevelopment of the area around Lincoln Road and the convention center.

Grieco’s opponent, former federal prosecutor Dan Gelber, wrote a letter to the commission Tuesday suggesting that the money be put into a mobility trust fund — a pot of money to be spent on relieving traffic congestion. He reiterated his stance Wednesday in person before the commission.

Former federal prosecutor Dan Gelber is running for Miami Beach mayor against Commissioner Michael Grieco.

Levine, who has said he’s not running for mayor again and might run for governor, urged commissioners to keep the train money earmarked specifically for transit. But he was absent from the meeting because he was testifying before a U.S. Senate committee on infrastructure. At Levine’s request, the discussion on whether to return the money to its respective funds was deferred to April.

But Grieco took the opportunity to criticize his political opponent, questioning his knowledge of the ways thing work at City Hall.

“Unfortunately, Dan Gelber doesn’t know how city government functions,” Grieco told the Miami Herald. “The $40 million needs to be returned to its sources since they are no longer needed for a local train. A mobility trust fund is a good idea. Unfortunately for Dan the city already has a transportation fund that serves this exact purpose. Gelber’s 11th-hour proposal is merely an ill-conceived campaign gimmick based on his ignorance of Miami Beach government and our budget structure.”

Gelber responded that he is fully aware of the city’s funding mechanisms and still believes a pot of money should be dedicated toward projects that relieve congestion.

“I know how government works. They took the money from a variety of places,” he said. “I know how hard it is to collect money, and we ought to keep it set aside to address what I think has become an incredible problem on the Beach right now.”

In December, the commission agreed that a final contract for any light rail project will have to be approved by the voters.

It’s true that the city already has a “transportation trust fund” meant to address congestion, but there is nothing in it. The city budgets money for its transportation costs from existing sources, such as resort taxes and developer fees, some of which provided $15 million of the $36 million train allocation. The rest was drawn from redevelopment funds that also pay for garages, police and projects like the renovation of the Miami Beach Convention Center.

Last July the City Commission created the transportation trust fund, which is supposed to receive money from lease renegotiations, financial judgments from lawsuits and audit findings.

City officials acknowledged that the fund won’t grow quickly. “It was recognized that the funds generated on an annual basis may not be large,” reads a staff memo, written before the commission created the fund. “But over time, the funds would accumulate, with other existing sources that would provide funding for projects.”

When a reporter told Gelber about the existing fund on Friday, he said it is similar to what he was requesting, but it does not create a regular revenue stream that will pay for projects to alleviate traffic jams in the Beach.

The $36 million “was supposed to address congestion” with light rail, he said. “The money is the question. I’d like to have recurring money in a trust fund.”

Joey Flechas: 305-376-3602, @joeflech