Alex Penelas: Give South Dade residents the rail transportation that they were promised

A trackless train, in use in China, was under consideration for Miami-Dade. However, Mayor Carlos Gimenez was not impressed after taking a ride.
A trackless train, in use in China, was under consideration for Miami-Dade. However, Mayor Carlos Gimenez was not impressed after taking a ride. Miami-Dade County

While the current debate pits rail against an enhanced bus system for residents of South Dade, there is much more at stake for the future of transportation in Miami-Dade County. In fact, by approving rail as the preferred mode of transportation for South Dade later this month, the Transportation Planning Organization (TPO) has a timely opportunity to put all of Miami-Dade County back on track.

As the main sponsor and author of the 2002 People’s Transportation Plan (PTP), let there be no doubt that rail was indeed promised to the people of South Dade. It was part of a vision to build the foundation of a county-wide transportation network that would begin to address many of the immediate mobility needs of Miami-Dade with the ability to expand and grow to meet future needs as well. That vision included not only additional rail, but expanded bus service, street and highway improvements and municipal enhancements, such as the local trolleys that have been a success throughout Miami-Dade County.

Voters overwhelmingly approved this vision along with a half penny increase in the sales tax to serve as the long sought-after local dedicated funding source for transportation. Despite what some are alleging now, the half penny was never projected to cover the entire cost of the PTP but rather to serve as a dedicated source of revenue to attract “matching” federal and state transportation dollars. While the timeline for full implementation of the PTP and rail corridors was envisioned to take decades and would depend on the level and timing of federal and state commitments as well as other revenue sources, it was also clear that surtax proceeds were only to be used for new projects as outlined in the PTP and were to be overseen by an independent panel.

Sixteen years ago, while I had the privilege of serving as mayor, we anticipated the traffic woes of today and knew that we urgently needed to get started with a bold plan to address the growing mobility needs of an emerging international metropolis.

Fast forward to 2018 and, unfortunately, we have not witnessed the level of improvement we had hoped for. Because of the Great Recession and the county budget pressures that followed, a significant portion of the half penny proceeds was diverted to support existing services rather than the new projects set forth in the plan; that practice was formalized by ordinance in 2009 and, sadly, continues today. To make matters worse, the Independent Trust was watered down. As a result, the people of South Dade now are being asked to settle for less. They should not settle; not for their sake and not for the sake of all the residents of Miami-Dade County who are asphyxiating in ever increasing traffic congestion.

While we will never recoup a decade and a half of lost time, the TPO can begin to get us back on track by approving rail for South Dade. But more is needed:

First, during its upcoming September budget hearings, the county must immediately cease allocating surtax revenues to balance its budget. One hundred percent of the half penny must be invested as mandated by the PTP for new and enhanced services, including rail.

Second, amendments that weakened the Independent Transportation Trust must be reversed; the Trust needs to be truly independent in order to properly perform its intended oversight role.

Finally, the county must begin to reimburse the Transportation Trust for all of the dollars diverted to non-PTP programs; this can serve as a revenue stream for the South Dade rail project as well as other PTP-mandated enhancements.

It is gratifying to see the growing network of trolleys and other municipal improvements, as well new financing initiatives and technological improvements that have evolved over the years. However, Miami-Dade County does not need a new transportation plan. What it needs is for today’s leaders to fulfill the bold vision that voters overwhelmingly embraced and mandated 16 years ago.

By approving rail to South Dade, the TPO can take the first step toward putting Miami-Dade back on track.

Alex Penelas was Miami-Dade mayor from 1996 to 2004.