Go for BayLink

By John Dorschner

     A little-known committee that includes three major  mayors passed a resolution Thursday that could signal the start of building BayLink -- a light-rail/street car corridor connecting Miami and Miami Beach over the MacArthur Causeway.
    "It is truly a historic accomplishment," said County Commissioner Xavier Suarez, a member of the committee.
    "The ball started rolling today," said County Mayor Carlos Gimenez, also a member of the committee.
    Before we get to the wonkish details, two caveats:
    * There is still no funding for the system that, according to some estimates, will cost about $530 million. What was set in motion Thursday was a search for funding.
    * In the very best case scenario, the transit system is at least six years away from opening, according to Gimenez.
    Still, the community's transit leaders, including Aileen Boucle, the new director of the Metropolitan Planning Organization, regarded this as an important step.

    From Beach Convention Center to Design District

    Here are the specifics: the Beach Corridor Policy Executive Committee of the MPO voted unanimously to proceed toward a memorandum of understanding between the county, cities of Miami and Miami Beach and the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) to undertake a two-prong approach:
    * Miami Beach will go its own way to fund and build its section from the tip of South Beach to the Convention Center.
    * The county and city of Miami will seek federal funding for its corridor from Fifth and Alton on the Beach, across the MacArthur Causeway and wind its way through downtown Miami up Miami Avenue through Midtown and the Design District to end at 41st Street.

The county and city of Miami are seeking federal dollars for the red line. Miami Beach is going ahead with its own funding plans for the yellow line.
     The committee includes Gimenez, City of Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado, Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, County Commissioner Bruno Barreiro and Suarez. They met Thursday on the 29th floor of County Hall in a conference room that had a standing-room-only audience of perhaps 100.
    The key to the one-page resolution was to make sure the projects followed new federal guidelines of joint, but separate projects seeking money from Washington.
    To do that, the two proposed transit lines "must possess interoperability" including "design technology, fare collection, and should be light-rail/streetcar system and operate in a dedicated right of way or lane," according to the resolution.

    Funding for Preliminary Studies Already in Place

    Funding for the initial steps for project development and environmental (PD&E) studies has already been put together  -- $10 million, with $5 million coming from FDOT, $3.75 million from the county's half-penny sales tax for transit, and smaller amounts from the cities of Miami and Miami Beach.
    The next step is to have commissioners of the counties and the two cities approve a memorandum of understanding, and then it will be sent for final approval to the MPO, a 23-member board that includes the 13 county comissioners, plus representatives of cities and others.
    The MPO's Boucle told the committee that she hoped that the local governments could speed the memorandum of understanding through their boards in February so that the MPO could vote on it in March.
    Boucle told Miami Web News that the actions were likely to cause the MPO to make BayLink a Priority One for action. At present, it's a Priority Three. 

     All current Priority One's are road projects -- meaning for the first time in decades a rail project would be at the top of the county's to do list.
    The committee voted Thursday after listening to a presentation by Washington consultant Jeffrey Boothe into how Miami-Dade could navigate the complex waters of federal funding.

                     Federal Funding is "Darwinian" 
    Boothe said one crucial element is that new federal rules for "program of interrelated projects" -- as the Miami Beach/County lines would be -- has the advantage that projected private sector funding for Miami Beach could be part of the "match money" that the federals demand before putting up 30 percent to 80 percent of a project's funds.
    Miami Beach is considering financing its line with a public-private partnership and may seek state funding. At some point, Mayor Levine said Thursday, it might want federal funding too.
    Boothe said there were various avenues to federal funds including "small start," meaning projects under $300 million, which typically move faster, and "new start" projects that seek federal funds over $300 million.
    Gimenez said with a smile that the county's plans were to seek $299,999,999.
    Boothe called the federal process a form of Darwinism -- "good projects survive," meaning they have local money and local support.

   Consultant: Time Line Has Many Variables

 Several times, Gimenez asked him for a time estimate about how long it might take to get federal funding, and Boothe kept responding with all the complex variables, including needing Coast Guard approval for environmental issues since the rail line would be next to the water along the MacArthur.
    After the meeting, Gimenez told a reporter that he understood that he understood that opening of the rail line was at least six years away.

                             "Show Me the Money" 
    Where would the local money come from, since the feds certainly would not pay everything -- or perhaps pay nothing?
    "PTP will be available," Gimenez responded. "Remember, this is at least five-years out."
    PTP is the People's Transportation Plan -- the $270 million or so that comes annually from the county's half-penny transit tax passed by voters in 2002 with promises it would lead to 90 miles of Metrorail expansion and a doubling of the bus fleet -- neither of which have come close to happening.
    At present, almost half that money is going to operate and maintain the present transit system, with another $72 million going to pay off debt and $57 million to cities for their own transit projects.
    Gimenez's plan is that the county will slowly wean itself off using the half-penny for operations -- a process that he estimates will take five years.
    Which is just about the time that the funds will be needed to start building BayLink.

    Maurice Ferre, former Miami mayor who is now a member of several transportation boards, was asked what he thought of Thursday's development.
    He said he'd give his answer at an MPO committee meeting on Friday morning.

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