Citizens' team tests waters for transit tax
By Jaime Levy
Worried about losing significant federal funds for improved mass transit, a citizens' action group is testing the waters of Miami-Dade County's electorate to see if a transit tax can be made palatable.
The telephone survey of 1,500 likely voters, started in late October and scheduled to be tallied in January, is meant to learn from mistakes of the past - namely, the 1999 attempt to create a dedicated source of funds for local transit through a 1% addition to the sales tax. The survey is the work of the Citizens Transportation Advisory Committee, the volunteer arm of the county's Metropolitan Planning Organization.
In a report released last week, grand jurors assigned to analyze the state of Miami-Dade's transit system blasted the previous effort, citing "animated public debate over whether it was a tax necessary to fund our future transportation needs or just another boondoggle for local government to mismanage."
Advisory committee Chair Frank Hernandez said his organization hopes to put the issue on a November ballot. The survey's questions include whether and how the respondent voted in the 1999 transit tax election; whether the respondent thought information provided in the 1999 election was sufficient; what the best local and countywide solutions to congested traffic are; if public transportation could alleviate congestion; and who the respondent would trust to oversee transportation funds. The advisory committee is a non-partisan citizens group.
"We're hoping to get a gauge, to see what would be the best direction for the county to take with respect to seeking a dedicated funding source," he said. "The timeline is to get everything in so Miami-Dade would be eligible for the next round of federal funding."
If an issue is going to appear on a countywide ballot, it must be approved by county commissioners six to seven weeks before the election, said Miami-Dade Transit spokesman Manny Palmeiro.
Federal funds, he said, will be dependent on having matching local funds.
"The federal government told us they'd look at cities, counties, states with matching funds first, otherwise forget about it - they're not going to talk to you," he said, estimating that the county could miss out on $9 billion in federal funds.
Michael Cannon, a member of the executive committee for the Urban Land Institute's Southeast Florida District Council and a longtime critic of the area's transit options, said a Miami-Dade County-specific initiative would not address the big picture. The Urban Land Institute is a national organization that studies land use in order to enhance the total environment. The local affiliate has made a strong push to promote regionalism.
"It has to be addressed on a regional basis," said Mr. Cannon, managing director of Integra Realty Resources AREEA/South Florida. "The county and city lines are not Chinese walls in the marketplace. You can't just look at each county or city in a vacuum by itself."
But Mr. Hernandez, a partner in the business support company Lobby Business Center, said the county must straighten itself out before working on a regional level.
"As far as regional transportation goes, Miami-Dade County is the largest population-wise, and is the largest area that would benefit by a regional transportation organization or concern," he said. "But before Miami-Dade County could get involved in any of that, we believe Miami-Dade Transit has to get their act together before we can help out two or three other counties.
"Transportation knows no boundaries," he continued. "Unfortunately, here in Miami, the history of transit issue is not very good, in terms of citizens being told one thing and politicians doing something else."
Details on open positions on the advisory committee: Clinton Forbes, (305) 375-4507.