Transit plan’s biggest shortage isn’t money, it’s courage
Written by Michael Lewis on June 13, 2017
Almost 14 months after Miami-Dade unveiled with full fanfare a so-called SMART plan to add six transit corridors, all we have is that same empty pledge.
The glaring lack of detail and almost total uncertainty failed to enlighten a transportation session at last week’s Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce Goals Conference.
Other than a focus on six new transit corridors – the same six we were promised when voters approved a half-percent transit sales tax in 2002 – what do we really have? As chamber members heard, we have:
■No decision on whether to use buses or rail on any or all routes.
■No decision on what kind of technology we’d use if we did pick rail.
■No firm costs to create any of the corridors. Nobody is putting a full price on the whole plan.
■No funds to build or buy equipment for any of the corridors.
■No firm plan for who to tap for the funds, or even where to look first, public or private money or new taxes.
■No public timetable to do anything.
■Agreement – yes, agreement – that all routes won’t get done at once, but no decision on which comes first.
■No courage by most to even tiptoe through the political minefield to pick a first corridor.
■Not even a hint of where to get money to operate six corridors at a certain loss if we manage somehow to find funds to build. Transit fares here pay only about 17% of operating costs – though the chamber panel got a vague estimate nearer 30%.
The discussion left many of us who desperately want this plan to succeed wondering who will take needed steps so we get something done somewhere.
The two politicians on the panel – no mayors in sight – implied that once a single transit leg is added they will come back and try to double the transportation sales tax to add more.
They can’t do that using as a showpiece the only rail the tax has built in 15 years – a short Metrorail leg to the airport – because the county last month cut service owing to weak use and high operating loss. Nobody on the panel mentioned those cuts, but they sure aren’t sales tools.
The best hope was that the transit and government leaders are all certain they can do something.
Asked what we might see in a year, Miami-Dade Commission Chairman Esteban Bovo Jr. predicted that “we will have asked the [Transportation Planning Organization] to vote on a corridor and we will have put the funding in place to do that corridor.”
He even knows what the corridor will be: he’s betting on converting the busway from Dadeland to Florida City to rail.
If Mr. Bovo had all the votes, that would happen. But he’s one of 13 votes on the county commission and one of 27 on the Transportation Planning Organization board, which will make the final decision on routes and transit methods.
Mr. Bovo chairs that organization, with Miami Commissioner Francis Suarez vice chair. Both agreed on the panel that South Dade comes first. That’s two votes out of 27.
The clear barrier to progress is that nothing will happen politically to choose a route and transit mode until funding to build is clear, yet the lion’s shares of funding won’t be put on the table without a clear route and transit mode, be it rail or bus.
The even bigger bind, everyone knows, is that whatever is done is going to lose money in a big way because we collect so few full fares. Metromover is free and nobody is willing to charge a penny. The county issues many types of free transit passes for no-doubt worthy users and many half-fare passes for many more no-doubt worthy users. Figures on what percentage of people pay undiscounted fares are hard to come by – or even figures on how many pay at all.
The fact is, whatever system we build must be even more heavily subsidized than in other cities to make up for minuscule fares. What is the political will to collect anything more equitably at the fare box? None is visible.
As the chamber was being told of the SMART plan, it heard a variety of ways to fund it. Carlos Roa, assistant director of transportation and land use for the Transportation Planning Organization, suggested special assessments. County transportation head Alice Bravo suggested a tax increment financing district and bonding against its revenues, a program that Mr. Bovo has suggested along transit corridors.
Two federal loan programs were cited. Mr. Suarez suggested going to Washington for 15% to 20% of costs but noted that we’d still have to find the balance.
Ms. Bravo said up to half the money could come from the federal New Starts funding program. Mr. Suarez suggested that half the money could come from restructuring the way the county now doles out receipts from the half-percent transit sales tax, but noted that the county is using the money for maintenance and covering transit shortages, not as voters were promised.
But nobody suggested getting more money from those who will use the system. Covering operations, as usual, is an afterthought.
That brings us back to square one: we can’t do all six routes at once, we can’t choose a single route without political courage, we can’t get agreement without funding, we can’t get funding without stepping on someone’s toes over use of the transit tax or collecting more from fares or taxing visitors more (everyone agreed that can’t be done) or at least picking a single route.
So, that leaves us, unfortunately, very short not only of the untold true billions to build but the one commodity that’s scarcer than money. To quote Mr. Suarez, we need “the political courage and leadership to do it.”
“The politics of what corridor goes first and who to offend and who not to offend,” Mr. Bovo said, “that honestly has been a subliminal part of the conversation.”
Folks, it’s time to stop worrying about who doesn’t go first. If we can’t get past the political minefield and pick a corridor we’ll never get to the costs or how to both fund and then operate a transit corridor. And if we don’t fund operating losses from the outset we can forget any long-term transit gains.
As Mr. Suarez said, where is the political courage and leadership? It’s time to put it on display or accept permanent gridlock. And that’s just plain politically and civically unacceptable.