To our benefit, transit trust seeking to live up to its name
Written by Michael Lewis on September 22, 2015
In a remarkable journey, the Citizens’ Independent Transportation Trust is living up to its name’s four elements: citizens, independent, transportation and trust.
After the county commission over a decade hijacked $1 billion plus in taxes that citizens pay to expand transportation, the trust that voters were promised would oversee those funds and actually expand mass transit is saying independently that it’s time to keep the promises.
If the trust passes a resolution to that effect Oct. 21 we will commend its courage – even though complying with promises to voters would then rest with the commission, the body that brazenly handled the broad-daylight hijacking in the first place.
It started back in 2002, when then-Mayor Alex Penelas, waving a detailed list of what they would get, persuaded voters to tax themselves an extra one-half percent on sales. The money was to build a cornucopia of mass transit, and a trust independent of our mistrusted officials would do it.
If we had gotten what we voted to pay for, we wouldn’t face today’s transportation gridlock. But we were shamelessly overpromised and even more shamefully under-delivered.
First, those who engineered the tax drive tossed onto the project list far more than the money could have built. The promises pleased every power group and the tax passed. But vastly inflated claims spelled failure. We built just a short airport link.
Then, commissioners balked at another promise: to let an independent trust allot the money. First they decided that it wouldn’t be independent. Then they didn’t appoint members until the commission had spent most of the money, not to add transit but simply to run what we had. By the time a trust was seated, it was hamstrung.
Then in 2009, commissioners formalized the hijacking of most of the tax to use in ways voters never approved. This year, 38% of receipts are subsidizing daily fares.
Now, 13 trust members handpicked by 13 commissioners are set to vote that they’ve had enough hijacking, so let’s spend the tax to add transit. They would end hijacking and let the county spend more itself to run the system.
The trust resolution never says “hijacking,” but it cites a “tremendous renewed interest on behalf of the community, business and elected officials in moving forward with” the projects that voters were promised and says the step is “a critical component to restoring community trust and returning to the original purpose for which the surtax was adopted and the trust created.”
In other words, it’s time to finally keep faith.
Actually, it’s far past time. Since the vote, we’ve lost 13 years in the race to meet transit needs. As it is, more than $1.6 billion from the trust has gone to the county, mostly to run the system rather than make promised additions.
This year alone the surtax will bring in about $225 million. The county’s long-range transportation plan for 2019 to 2040 estimates surtaxes averaging $403 million a year, coming to just under $7 billion for that 22-year period.
That money could repay bonds borrowing to build several transit lines – maybe to South Dade, or Miami-Miami Beach, or west to Florida International University or north to Broward. The choice of which comes first is less vital than the decision of whether to build at all. The county so far has chosen to not build at all.
A courageous trust resolution would fall in the commission’s lap just as everyone is begging for more transit. How will commissioners try to block or weaken the aim of keeping faith with the public? Twice already they’ve kept mass transit from moving forward with money we had in hand. Will this be a third strike?
Clearly we need transportation. It’s also clear that voters have witnessed the blatant breaking of promises and hijacking of transit funds.
Some commissioners are new since the 2009 hijacking, and even then four commissioners – including the current mayor – voted no. With pressure on, the combination of clear needs for transit and to show faith with voters could release the county’s grip on surtaxes.
How could that make a difference?
First, the trust might fund one or two big projects, a vital shift from the commission’s aim to split things 13 ways for 13 commissioners, which waters impact down to a drizzle rather than a river of new transportation. Our weak economic development spending shows how balkanization weakens everything. Statesmen need to pick the biggest impact for the county rather than dribble out funds 13 ways with little to show for it.
The aim should not be to spend fairly for each district but fairly for the county as a whole. Big impact is vital.
Second, for the trust to succeed the county must drive a larger slice of its own budget into transportation to replace surtaxes that will build new projects. The county must operate the present system, which is where the trust money is dribbled away now.
Even the hijacking of transit taxes was sleight of hand. When commissioners formalized that diversion a decade ago they promised to keep current transit rolling by adding 3.5% to it annually from general revenues in addition to the transit taxes. But last year, with the budget tight, the county rescinded even that 3.5% add-on for five years.
Transit trust members are courageous in asking to begin spending as voters were promised. If they stick to their guns, that will give the commission one final chance to do the right thing by voters, taxpayers, residents, visitors, businesses and everyone who has to navigate Miami-Dade.
We’ve watched over time as commissioners have given transportation a back seat. They need to hear from us that keeping faith with promises to add transportation is top, not bottom, priority.
A special lane in hell is reserved for any commissioner who doesn’t listen. It will be a transplanted strip of US 1 from Dadeland to Brickell, to be driven forever at rush hour. Or would the Palmetto or I-95 be even more hellish?