Don’t leave a creative solution to transit sitting at the station
Written by Michael Lewis on September 20, 2016
A creative proposal to fund six light rail lines to fill out Miami-Dade’s transit skeleton and loosen gridlock’s economic chokehold has too much potential to sidetrack. It should be a highball express.
Last week, however, the county committee that aims to speed new transportation left the plan sitting in the station. Only Commissioner Xavier Suarez even showed up, leaving a vital solution at the starting gate.
That’s a shame, because even if the forward-looking route mapped by Esteban Bovo Jr. wins committee approval and then speeds nonstop through the commission – and that’s a huge if – it will merely give Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s team six months to study the concept and then brief commissioners who, if they’re fully sold, would then shape the mayor’s report for action.
Under the best conditions with goodwill on all sides, if we start now the county couldn’t generate transit funds using the machinery Mr. Bovo outlines for several years, with actual cash flowing a year or so later and construction after that.
Nothing in transit planning, funding or construction is quick – nor, as our current skeletal rail system shows, is generating enough riders to yield faster commutes for everyone, even drivers. It’s so cumbersome, in fact, that every delay pushes an end to constantly slowing commutes further and further into the future.
What Mr. Bovo proposes is a deep look at financing transit via the engine that Community Redevelopment Agencies use. The legislation that governs them funnels to each agency the lion’s share of increased tax receipts in their areas as property values grow. They use that money to further strengthen the area’s economy. Some do it well, some don’t.
In the case of transit, Mr. Bovo is proposing either one umbrella fund or one for each new rail line to take in each year tax increments plus all other transit funds available, which might be farebox revenue, state and federal funds and more, to jumpstart the six routes. How to fund ongoing rail operations must also be crystal clear before the county creates transit funding pools.
Note that however good this plan sounds, it only works if property values along transit lines grow faster than value growth of other properties.
The rationale for such a tax district is that rail is an economic catalyst. Heavily used transit lures dense development of housing, jobs and opportunity near every station.
If the committee and then the commission pass Mr. Bovo’s measure – which they should, because it merely would study a transit funding tool that’s succeeding elsewhere in Florida – the mayor’s team will create a mountain of research.
The measure asks the mayor to recommend either an umbrella district or six districts, boundaries for each, multiple scenarios of how tax increment use could affect the county budget, the impact on the plan of community redevelopment agencies, other funds that could flow into the tax districts, concerns of affected cities, and how much money could flow in.
Each recommendation has economic and political ramifications. Multiply the study’s seven questions by 13 county commissioners to get 91 possible sticking points.
No, this won’t be easy.
Other commissioners, including Mr. Suarez, have their own ideas of how to fund six transit routes that we badly need. Each of these concepts also faces multiple sticking points, again multiplied by 13 commissioners and many government agencies.
Frankly, any path that gets us to needed transit is worth exploring. And Mr. Bovo is merely asking for a study that would not be a barrier if any of the six routes could be completed earlier in another way.
A study might uncover more impediments to tax increment financing. The existing redevelopment agencies, cities involved and the county, for example, would all want to preserve tax growth near transit to spend it themselves.
But taxes won’t get extra growth spurts near transit if we don’t build the transit in the first place. Driving that fact home might get us past reluctance to share revenue that cannot exist unless we create the revenue generators. It will be a tough sell.
For that reason, keep looking at other ways to add transit. But we’d be foolish to ignore Mr. Bovo’s route, which could, if everyone cooperated, be the missing link to funding rail lines that in years to come could relieve the stress of mobility in Miami-Dade.
We encourage commissioners to get aboard in seeking a study. We anticipate express speed from the mayor’s team as a result. Whatever we do, we shouldn’t leave a credible mobility solution idling in the station.