State Keeps Balking on Transit

By John Dorschner

Show Me the Money, Part 102

    As the quest for funding six transit corridors gets focused, one natural source -- the state -- is proving exceedingly balky in helping any of the Miami-Dade initiatives.
    In a committee meeting earlier this month, Commissioner Esteban Bovo said of the recent legislative session: "Tallahassee didn't treat us kindly."
Esteban Bovo
The state spends hundreds of millions on annually in Dade -- but it's all for roads. "Road widening – everything that has to do with accommodating the car," Bovo said in a April 13 transit committee meeting.
    Bovo named a number of initiatives that got blown off in the Legislature, some of them obscure measures that could have had big results. One of them, noted Bovo: "They shot down an attempt to create TIF legislation."
    He meant creating special taxing districts -- tax increment finance (TIF) or a cousin, assessment districts -- so that property owners near rail lines would pay an additional tax for transit development, recognizing that the new corridor would greatly enhance their property values. (That idea was first suggested by a study from the Citizens' Independent Trust in a story first reported HERE. A clearer explanation of the differences between TIF and AD is in the Adam comment at the bottom of this story.)
    Other mass transit ideas vanished died during the session too:
    * Commissioner Xavier Suarez's idea to get for transit a return of quarter of the toll money spent by Dade drivers on Miami-Dade Expressway Authority and the $167 million
Xavier Suarez
Dade drivers send to the state annually for auto-tag renewal.
    * $20 million that Tri-Rail expected from the state to extend its operations to downtown Miami. (After the rejection, the regional train service decided it could find the money elsewhere.)
    The latest blow by the state came a few days ago when the Florida Department of Transportation told the county it was backing out of its deal to oversee the testing and development of BayLink, which received a go-ahead from city and county leaders in February -- a move that Xavier Suarez called at the time "a historic accomplishment."
Gus Pego
In an email to the county, FDOT District Secretary Gus Pego wrote Transit Director Alice Bravo that FDOT would continue its part of project development and environmental plan funding (which could be $5 million to $7.5 million) but the state would no longer take lead in the complex process to secure federal funding -- a timely, labor-intensive process that the county now will have to take over if the project is to proceed.
    Certainly FDOT is already spending huge sums -- most of it coming from Dade sources that get transferred to Tallhassee for dispersal. About $88 million is listed as intended for mass transit, but an analysis for the Dade transit committee shows that in 2016-2017 the state plans to spend more than $900 million in Dade on roads, highways and land acquisitions.

      Some of this is needed maintenance -- $94.4 million for resurfacing -- but $543 million is going for new highway construction, and $38.4 million for traffic engineering consultants, with Bovo calling that last figure "head-scratching."

  "County Wants To Stop Funding More Highways"

      In a recent essay, Xavier Suarez wrote: "What is evident from statements made by Chairman Esteban Bovo ... (and echoed by almost all of the Board members, including both Democrats and Republicans) is that the county wants to fund mass transit and stop funding more highways.  This was also the thrust of a resolution passed at the end of the prior month’s MPO [Metropolitan Planning Organization] meeting and introduced by Vice-Chair Francis Suarez," Xavier's son.
    Certainly, the Miami business community believes the state needs to spend more in Dade. Alex Lastra, president of the Latin Builders Association, wrote recently: "Miamians need to understand that we are a donor community within a donor state. We send more money, including gas taxes, to both Tallahassee and Washington, D.C., than we get back."
    This has long been a mantra among county politicians, seeking more of a "fare share," but it has fallen on deaf ears in Tallahassee and Washington. At the transit committee meeting on April 13, Commissioner Bruno Barreiro said he was tired of that argument.
Bruno Barreiro
"We have to send up as little as possible in dollars" to Tallahasee, Barreiro said. "I'm for keeping it here and spending it here."
    That's easier said than done. Barreiro has tried -- and failed -- in the past to get the Legislature to allot more dollars paid by Dade drivers in gas tax to be spent in the county, rather than pave roads in poorer, rural counties.
    The harsh reality: Most folks in the Scott Administration and state leaders in general don't look favorably on Dade's ideas of mass transit, says Maurice Ferre, former Miami mayor who sits on the MPO, MDX and the august Florida Transportation Commission.

    Gov. Scott "Totally Opposed to Mass Transit"
 In an interview last year, Ferre told me that the state's leadership is turning its back on transit funding. "Can we do it?" Ferre asked of funding transit. "Absolutely. Does the governor want to do it? Absolutely not. He's totally opposed to mass transit."   
    With little publicity, Ferree said, Gov. Rick Scott's FDOT is planning to spend $3.5 billion to $7 billion by 2020 to add toll express lanes to major roads throughout the state: Those who can afford it can zoom along while those with fewer funds or shorter commutes are stuck in regular lanes. Scott's backing the express lanes is based on research papers from the libertarian Reason Foundation.
    Wider highways doesn't do much for some local politicians. Bovo told the transit committee that he's tired of the traffic jams.

                  Even Pols Get Stuck in Traffic
    "I was stuck in traffic today and I didn't have an alternative. I needed my car. There's nothing on the agenda that can point to an alternative," Bovo said on April 13. "Synchronizing lights and making our buses more efficient -- it bothers me that this is the best we can do. This is not what I signed up for."
    Two weeks later, Bovo joined the other commissioners in unanimously voting to proceed with planning for all six transit corridors simultaneously, even as he warned the plan could be yet another transit failure.

      Xavier Suarez: Funding Soon Four Corridors   
      Despite considerable criticism that it made no economic sense to go forward with six corridors when there was no funding for even one, Xavier Suarez remains supremely optimistic. "Let me promise this: We will have the funding for the four principal corridors (not including the FEC-Costal link, which has its own momentum...) by the end of next year's budget cycle," he wrote to me in an email.
    With the county commission, which makes up the majority of the MPO, united behind the six-corridor plan, Suarez  believes the state will have to pay serious attention Dade's demands to switch from road building to mass transit.   
    "Expect the State to become keenly aware of priorities being set by county commissioners," Suarez wrote in a recent opinion piece, "beginning with the very next legislative session in January 2017." 

Posted April 30, 2016

1 comment:

  1. TIF is not the same as Special Assessment District where property owners pay extra taxes. What TIF does is channel the taxes from the increase in property values—presumably because of the TIF programs (in this case, better transit)— back into the services that are creating those value increases, rather than sending it to the general fund of the county and cities. A TIF for transit makes a lot of sense, particularly if combines with improved transit-oriented zoning and density around stations.