SMART plan: Where's the Half-Penny

By John Dorschner
    When it comes to discussing the future transit in Miami-Dade, a key element is the half-penny transportation sales tax -- a fund that is supposed to be overseen by a watchdog agency, which has persistently approved spending in ways that voters didn't want.
    In 2002, voters passed the half-penny with the understanding it would be used to expand rail and bus service -- and its use protected from political interference by  the Citizens' Independent Transportation Trust. 
    In fact, much of the half-penny goes for ordinary operating expenses, and the CITT appears so frightened of offending anyone that its executive director has decided it shouldn't even ask the county commission to return the half-penny to its original purpose some years down the road.
    More on that in a moment. But first, let's go back to a rare mention of the half-penny at a government meeting, which occurred during last week's discussion by the Metropolitan Planning Organization to proceed simultaneously with the SMART planning for six rail lines and six dedicated busways, even though no state, federal or local money exists at the moment for even a single one.
Rebeca Sosa
Last Thursday, Commission Rebeca Sosa backhandedly supported/decried MPO's SMART plan as "something that can become realistic if we really make the necessary decisions to make it a reality."
    She then said, "We need to re-employ the PTP funds." PTP stands for People's Transportation Plan, the bureaucratic name for the half-penny approved by voters in 2002 on the promise it would build 90 miles of new rail. "As long as we are dividing PTP, we are not going to accomplish anything. ... Let's start reviewing the PTP, Mr. Mayor."
    In fact, the half-penny gets divided all over the place. It even paid $1990 for two fancy stop signs at my corner in Miami Shores.

(For details on that and the background of the half-penny, see my Biscayne Times cover story Gridlock, available HERE.)
    The reality: To get voter approval in 2002, the pols promised one-fifth of the half-penny would go to local cities, to finance things like my stop sign. This fiscal year, of the $278 million the tax is supposed to generate, $133 million will go for operating and maintaining the current bus-rail system, $72 million to pay off debt (for the tiny 2.4 mile Metrorail extension to the airport, among others) and $57 million to cities.
    Efforts to change the situation go nowhere. Last year, Commissioner Xavier Suarez and CITT Chair Paul Schwiep
Xavier Suarez
mounted a campaign to get the half-penny used for its original purpose. In July, The Miami Herald wrote an editorial endorsing the concept.
    After wandering through a bureaucratic maze, the idea came to a vote of the CITT last October. Suarez had thought the motion would ask for a return to its original purpose within three years. Schwiep acknowledged it had been watered down to "three to five
Paul Schwiep
    The resolution, passed 12-4, to ask the county commission to approve a transition to using the half-penny for its original purpose. (My story on that event is HERE.)

    And then what happened?
    Charles Scurr, CITT's executive, told me months later that he felt no need to ask the commission to act because "it's already in the pro forma," bureaucratic talk for meaning that the projected budgets of Mayor Carlos Gimenez over the next five years imagine the phasing out of the half-penny being used for operations.
    Of course, five-year budget projections get changed all the time. 

Daniella Levine Cava
  At a CITT committee meeting last December, Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava urged the CITT to become more involved in pushing the county to expand mass transit.
    “We do have a very messy infrastructure when it comes to  transportation," Levine Cava said, and a clear voice from CITT would be helpful.
    Scurr's response: "We've been successful
Charles Scurr
because we've been collaborative," which seemed to mean that the watchdog agency survives by going along with what politicians want.

    Mayor Gimenez said earlier this year that the half-penny will be available to fund rail-bus expansion in five years, which he figures is how long it will take for proposals to become reality.
    In some cities, there are active groups of mass transit riders who make frequent and loud demands for better and expanded service in front of their government bodies.
    That rarely happens in Miami. In March, during an evening downtown of people interested in transit and affordable housing, a Kendall resident asked a question of Terry Murphy, senior policy advisor for County Commission Chairman Jean Monestime:
    How could transit riders make a difference?
Terry Murphy
   Murphy's response: Start attending and speaking at meetings of MPO, the county's most powerful transportation body.
    "But that's in mornings and afternoons of work days," the man said. "Most of us are working."
    Last Thursday, when the MPO cast what was called a momentous vote to proceed on 12 transit corridors, not a single member of the public spoke.

                                                                  Posted April 26, 2016.

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