MIAMI — A 21-member grand jury empanelled last year to evaluate Miami-Dade County’s transportation system issued a report Feb. 9 that criticized the county’s “People’s Transportation Plan,” charging that promises made when voters approved a half-penny sales tax to improve mass transit have not been kept.
The juror’s 37-page report cited the failure to expand the county’s bus and train systems, and the need for county elected officials to make politically unpopular decisions to improve the county’s aging transit system.
Among the notable findings in the report is the fact that the Orange Line, which was supposed to expand the Metrorail into several predominantly black communities, was never built as
The grand jury concluded that “the half-penny sales tax was never going to be enough to implement all the grand proposals set forth in the PTP,” and recommended that the surtax be increased to a full penny. But it also concluded that elected officials may have a tough time selling the recommendations to a public well aware of past unfulfilled promises.
Voters approved the transit surtax in 2002 after five failed attempts dating back to 1976. The measure passed amid promises that the county would modernize and vastly expand public transportation, including building 90 miles of new Metrorail lines, adding additional bus routes and extending service hours.
After dozens of community meetings, the initiatives were collected into a People’s Transportation Plan with a price tag of $17 billion. A 15-member Citizens’ Independent Transportation
Trust was created to monitor implementation of the plan, which was supposed to help reduce gridlock and create thousands of jobs.
But, according to the report, county officials and Miami-Dade Transit (MDT) failed to anticipate the cost of maintaining and operating the existing system. As a result, much of the surtax money has gone to current bus and train operations, with little left for new projects. Seven years later, Metrorail expansion has stalled, and traffic on Miami-Dade’s roads is as clogged as ever.
Major parts of the plan, such as the creation of an Orange Line that would have expanded Metrorail through a “North Corridor” up 27th Avenue to Dolphin Stadium, running through predominantly black neighborhoods such as Opa-locka and Miami Gardens, have never been built, and – according to the grand jury report – likely never will. Instead, the Orange Line Metrorail project faces a $9.5 billion shortfall.
“The Orange Line is an issue that I and others on the commission strongly support, because we made a promise years ago when we built Metrorail,” County Commission Chairman Dennis Moss said. “The problem is, we have not been able to put together a financial plan that has been deemed feasible by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), and we’re not able at this point to show them that we can build the line, and provide for the maintenance costs.”
County officials have one remaining lifeline: They have requested funds from President Barack Obama’s economic recovery plan, signed into law on Tuesday, which will fund infrastructure projects across the country. If that fails, the Orange Line could be expanded “piecemeal” over a longer period of time with local funds. But that could take years – even a decade – to complete.
Moss and other officials say it’s tough for any municipality to meet federal funding guidelines for transit systems that are extremely expensive to maintain, let alone expand. And he notes that Miami-Dade isn’t alone in running a transit deficit: New York, Chicago and other major cities’ transit systems are in the red, too, he said.
“Very few systems are able to expand because of the operational costs, and the way the federal government funds transit systems,” Moss said.
And in Miami-Dade, “even with the half-penny tax, 20 percent goes to the municipalities, and you have free rides (for seniors) and all the rest.”
FREE RIDES CRITICIZED
In fact, the grand jury report criticized the county’s free ride programs, including the Metromover, which stopped charging its 25-cent fare after the 2002 surtax passed, so that now, “taxpayers are subsidizing free rides for a great number of lawyers, bankers, accountants, business executives and others working in and around downtown Miami, Brickell Avenue and the Financial District who use the Metromover as they make their way through those areas.”
The report concluded that elected officials “oversold” the transit tax proposal, making promises the transit authority couldn’t keep, something county officials acknowledged at a “people’s transportation summit” last November.
It recommends rethinking the Golden Passport system which allows senior citizens and low-income veterans to ride for free, in light of the Transit authority’s $115.4 million deficit, and criticized MDT for raising fares just twice in 18 years, saying elected officials in the county were likely reluctant to push for higher fares that would be unpopular with voters.
Moss acknowledged that the half-penny tax never provided enough revenue, but he is still looking to the federal government to do more. He wants a nationwide “transportation grid,” similar to the electrical grid called for in the economic stimulus plan. The grid would address congestion not just in Miami-Dade, but also across the U.S.
Moss and other county leaders plan to travel to Washington, D.C. next week to push for increased federal aid.
“President Obama is talking about reducing our carbon footprint and not relying so much on foreign oil,” Moss said. “That’s what a mass transit system allows you to do.”
Photo: County Commission Chairman Dennis Moss