Senator backs transit plan

By John Dorschner

Aintere Flores
    Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Kendall, chair of the senate's fiscal policy committee, announced Thursday she supports two key methods of  using existing revenue streams to support "a viable step towards a mass transportation solution for the residents of Miami-Dade." 
    In a letter, Flores said she backed the ideas being propounded by County Commissioner Xavier Suarez to use 25 percent of Dade toll money and all of the county auto-tag renewal funds to help alleviate horrendous traffic jams.
Xavier Suarez
  At a committee meeting of the Metropolitan Planning Organization on Thursday, Suarez said he envisions funding four new rail lines. 

      He said the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority has huge surpluses, thanks to expanded electronic tolling -- revenues of $20 million a month, or $240 million a year, while debt service is only $92 million annually.
    What's more, Dade car owners pay the state about $167 million a year -- and all they get back are stickers for their license plates that cost less than six cents each. Suarez said.
    State Rep. Kionne McGhee, D-South Dade, has introduced legislation in the Florida House of Representatives to use all of the Dade auto tag revenue and 20 percent of the MDX tolls to pay for new rail lines, 
Kionne McGhee
which the county's political leaders promised in 2002 if voters passed a half-penny transit sales tax.
    About $100 million of that half-penny has been going annually to fund basic operations and maintenance of county transit. Suarez calculates that if this money could be redirected to its original purpose of transit expansion, added with the toll and tag funds, the combined revenue could lead to a bonding capacity of $1.2 billion -- without increasing taxes a cent.
    "This plan provides for meaningful strides in methods of funding many crucial transportation projects across Miami-Dade County," Flores wrote in a letter to Dennis Moss, chair of the MPO's Transit Solutions Committee.
Xavier Suarez's plan for four new rail lines
                                              The Legislature's support is crucial because almost all ideas to expand transit in Miami-Dade require state approval to change the direction of funds. Suarez said he's seeing strong bipartisan support from both Republicans and Democrats in the Dade delegation.
    There's likely to be opposition -- starting with the MDX, where five of its 12 members are appointed by Gov. Rick Scott, who is adamantly anti-transit.
Javier Rodriguez
  On Thursday, MDX's executive director, Javier Rodriguez, told the MPO committee that while MDX "has always been a partner at the table" with the county on projects, he didn't want to commit specific funds to transit in advance. He said it's true MDX is now collecting $20 million a month, but it's incorrect "to assume that we will collect $240 million on an annual basis."
    Maurice Ferre, the former city of Miami mayor who is a member of both the MDX and MPO, repeated Thursday that he and many MDX board members support libertarian concepts of transit, and he recommended committee members read a Cato Institute paper, which says buses using dedicated lanes on expressways are  much preferable to rail lines, which Ferre considers "an outdated technology."
Maurice Ferre

    Miami Web News' previous reporting of Ferre's transit views are available HERE.
    Alice Bravo, the county's new transit director, told the committee that after recent visits to Washington and Tallahassee, "the message from all is the same ... we need a unified plan."
    If county leaders can get behind a single plan, they have a much better chance to get money from state and federal sources, she said. Without unity, there's little chance of obtaining funding.

           Stop 'Signature Bridge' -- Fund BayLink?

      One take-away from Thursday's meeting: It's clear huge sums already exist for transportation in Miami, but the issue is how they're spent. On Thursday, City Commissioner Francis Suarez wondered out loud whether it might be possible to "divert those funds from the 'Signature Bridge' to BayLink."
    The Signature Bridge (which would be near Biscayne Boulevard about 13th Street) and accompanying I-395 remodeling is expected to cost $800 million to $900 million, while Xavier Suarez estimates that BayLink -- a light rail from Miami to Miami Beach over the MacArthur Causeway -- will cost about $530 million.
Francis Suarez

    The Signature Bridge is intended to create a more aesthetic elevated roadway to the space that divides the Arsht Performing Center from the Perez Art Museum and the Frost Science Museum. Many in the arts community and downtown power brokers favor the redesign, which would be funded mostly by MDX and the Florida Department of Transportation.
    Francis Suarez, son of Xavier, said that while there is a desperate need for improving mass transit to alleviate traffic jams, the Signature Bridge could wait. "We waited seven years for the port tunnel."

    Francis Suarez also pointed out that the tunnel and the Miami Intermodel Center -- the airport area site that links rental cars, Metrorail, TriRail and bus services -- cost at least $2 billion in transportation funds.

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