Finance Miami

Miami Voters May be Asked to Consider Abandoning Transit Tax

picture-14General discontent in Miami-Dade County foments over lack of transit expansion progress

— 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)

5 replies on “Miami Voters May be Asked to Consider Abandoning Transit Tax”

Part of the problem in Miami is that the county commission stripped the power that the CITT committee had. Just recently, they all but eliminated the committee from exsistance.

Just a side note about something related to this: I have been looking at your “planned” and “under construction” pages as well as the “upcoming” list on the right side of the page, and there is no mention of the fact that the Miami Intermodal Center-Earlington Heights Connector (a 2.4-mile line connecting the existing Metrorail line to Miami International Airport) will have its groundbreaking ceremony this Friday. For details, please see:

Juan Felipe

I’d like to see them try. It will play out just the way it did in Charlotte, NC in 2007.

There will be an army of minions from APTA, Light Rail Now, and big money transit construction companies decending on Miami.

Has a guy named nawdry shown up down there yet? He’s a Light Rail Now hack out of Texas who shows up wherever anyone questions rail. Eventually they’ll get some visits out of Todd Litman from Canada.

Eventually, they’ll hire a consultant to support keeping the tax.

That person will get with the department of social services to gain access to the most vulnerable members of society and start scaring them into voting to keep the tax. They’ll say kidney patients will start dying because they can’t get to treatment.

They’ll tell the rich that their property tax will go up if they don’t keep the tax and they’ll tell the chamber of commerce that the city will grind to a halt if the tax is repealed.

Best of all, they might promise the bus riders that keeping the tax and building rail will not impact bus service at all and that it can all be built for a half cent.

The tax will be kept. A year or so later, bus service will be cut and they will be asking for another half cent to build more trains. That is exactly what happened in Charlotte – scare tactics and all.

I really don’t see it as such a horrible scenario as is being mentioned in the comment above. Realistically, with the corruption in Miami-Dade County hall, I sincerely doubt that they would actually repeal any form of money funneled into the county coffers. In reality, it was just one commissioner who proposed cutting the tax but I really doubt he would even get a second. Even then, it would have to go before the entire county for approval. Realistically, most in the county still believe in the intent and goal of the tax and understand the need for transit expansion in the county. The reality is though that nothing will be build as long as the county commission has any say in the matter.

If you look closely at the PTP documents and reports, that money is NOT only for transit. There are dozens of road and highway projects ranging from school zone improvements, signaling, adding lanes, to some completely new roads. These projects have gone forward despite the limited results on the transit side. It’s ironic–If you’re a motorist in Miami, you should be very satisfied with the PTP, but if you’re a transit rider, you’re clearly not.

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