— Update: the measure to allow voters to decide whether to remove the 1/2¢ sales tax for transit was defeated by the County Commission by a vote of 7-4 —
The Miami Herald reported yesterday that Miami-Dade County Commissioner Carlos Gimenez has introduced a resolution to the body that would allow the greater electorate to vote on whether to continue paying the dedicated 1/2¢ sales tax that they approved for transit funding back in 2002. The council will have to approve the measure before it would be submitted to voters on the ballot. Allowing voters to cancel the sales tax, however, would result in not only nothing being constructed but also a significant decline in existing transit, which is now quite reliant on the revenue source.
The vast majority of money raised by that tax — $900 million thus far — has gone to subsidize existing operations, with little going to the 89 miles of Metrorail service initially planned. The first link to be constructed, the 2.4-mile Orange Line Phase I, connecting the existing system to the airport’s people mover system, will break ground on Friday with service expected by 2012. But an extension of that line west to Sweetwater and the construction of a new corridor north along 27 Avenue to Carol City have been put on the slow track, now that most of the tax revenue is being used to cover operating expenses.
Sales taxes did provide 11 million miles of annual bus service, and the city has succeeded in providing free rides to senior citizens, an initial goal. But the original plan was to add 17 million additional miles of service, and of the 11 added to operations, half has already been cut. There are fewer trains running on the Metrorail system than in 2002. Instead of ramping up expansion, the transit agency instead ramped up hiring, adding 1,000 jobs and spending mostly on maintaining existing transit operations and increasing salaries. There are some pretty good reasons to be pissed off at the way the money collected from the sales tax has been spent, especially considering the grandiose plans that were promised to taxpayers. While many cities — including Charlotte and Denver — promised more than they could chew when they encouraged their populations to vote for 1/2¢ transit sales taxes, Miami seems to have done particularly poorly in implementing initial goals.
But while the county commissioners have been relatively honest in admitting their failure to complete projects as planned, they argue that eliminating the sales tax would ultimately mean destroying the transit system. While the tax has not led to a significant increase in service, it has prevented a decrease in service that would have otherwise been inevitable. For the sake of Miami’s transit-using citizens (Metrorail alone attracts almost 70,000 riders a day), it would be disastrous to eliminate this principal funding source.
Clearly, though, oversight on the use of the tax receipts is a necessary step. While the city has an independent Citizens Independent Transportation Trust, supposed to oversee transit expansion, it clearly hasn’t been successful. The city’s existing priorities must be reexamined, focusing on lines that would attract the highest ridership, such as the Douglas Road Extension and the BayLink Line to South Beach, which are more likely to attract federal New Start funds than the north and western corridors of the Orange Line proposal. In addition, there clearly is a pattern of corruption in rewarding employees with unnecessary wage increases and subsidizing bus lines that serve few customers. A reformed transit agency would spend more of its money on bolstering service.
Even with Miami’s problems, Mr. Gimenez’s instincts — to simply shrivel up funding for transit — are completely wrong-headed. Perhaps it’s not the time to increase the sales tax… but it is the time for finding better uses of existing funds. Miami needs to get its transit system in line, not out of service.
Image above: Miami transit plan, from Miami-Dade County (PDF)