Surveys show voters could support transportation tax with restrictions
By Jaime Levy
Two recent surveys, one by the Citizens Transportation Advisory Council and another by the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, show a willingness among county voters to consider - and possibly OK - a dedicated source of funding for transportation if it was either restricted in its use or not controlled by government.
The Citizens Transportation Advisory Council poll of 1,500 people, released last week and conducted last fall by PMG Associates in Deerfield Beach, was designed to gather information about transportation financing in light of the failed 1999 attempt to establish a penny sales tax for it. The chamber's study, conducted by Frederick Polls of Arlington, Va., and released Tuesday, also asked about finding a dedicated source of transportation funding.
Suspicions that the public's distrust of government may have doomed the tax in 1999 were echoed by survey respondents. In the Citizens Transportation Advisory Council poll, 39.3% said they would trust a citizen oversight committee to oversee transportation funds and 19.5% said they would trust a proposed transportation authority. Only 0.1% - two people - said they would trust government.
Citizens Transportation Advisory Council pollsters also asked whether respondents would vote for a dedicated source of funds for public transportation if there were a specific restriction by ordinance on how the money was to be spent. Seventy-eight percent said they would.
In the chamber's survey, respondents were asked whether they would vote for a one-half cent sales tax increase with all the money being used to add 500 buses to currently under-served areas and expanding the Metrorail by 63 miles. Fifty-nine percent they would, indeed, support a tax increase for those uses.
"It does seem like there's a willingness of the community to support a tax. It also appears that if they're going to do it, they want it very delineated. They want a guarantee that it will be used properly," said realtor Allen Harper, chair of the chamber's transportation committee and a member of the Regional Transportation Organization. "There's a lack of trust of government, and definitely, there is going to have to be a watchdog on how the money is spent."
With a 2003 federal transportation funding change looming that will require local governments to provide more money to qualify for federal matches, county officials are trying to get a dedicated funding source on the November ballot.
When those surveyed by both groups were presented with the possibility of losing millions of state and federal funds by not having a dedicated transportation-funding source, a majority said they would either support - or become more likely to support - new modes of financing. In the Citizens Transportation Advisory Council survey, for example, 74.1% said the prospect of losing state and federal funds would make them support a new revenue stream; only 42.5% of those who said they voted in the 1999 election answered that they supported the tax increase then.
And in the chamber poll, 56% of respondents said that knowing the county would lose federal matches would make them either "somewhat" or "much more" likely to support a transit sales tax.
In the 1999 election, 67.5 percent voted against a penny tax toward transportation. But if it had passed, that referendum called for some funds from the tax to indirectly pay for arts and cultural projects, tourism promotion and beaches, as well as transportation.
Transportation officials think the need for funds can be better communicated now and the uses for the funds geared toward fewer purposes.
"There is awareness that not only do we stand to lose federal money, we're not going to be at the doorstep of the federal government to have a viable request," said Wilson Fernandez, the county's transportation specialist. "If Miami-Dade doesn't position themselves with a dedicated funding source, many of the projects we have been planning for won't be able to move forward."
Although government staffers have been considering creating a dedicated funding source through a sales tax, the citizens' council survey, showed that respondents favored tolls, parking fee increases or gas taxes over sales taxes as the means for raising the money.
The survey was paid for by Miami-Dade Transit, which is responsible for the county's Metrobus, Metrorail, Metromover and Paratransit public systems. The chamber paid for its own survey.
"It's very evident from the survey that citizens support a dedicated funding source. Probably most important is how to fund it," said Citizens Transportation Advisory Council Chair Frank Hernandez. "Clearly, the survey shows that the citizens favor a user fee-based mechanism. We were surprised to see tolls were No. 1."
Despite the apparent citizen support shown in the surveys, by the time the issue hits the ballot, sentiment may change - especially considering that a dedicated funding source for transportation may be sharing the ballot with other proposed tax increases.
"Each one will play off each other," Mr. Fernandez said in reference to possible issues headed for the ballot. He said the county would soon begin a marketing campaign to publicize the quest for dedicated transportation funds. "The other ballot questions are up in the air themselves. You've got to just worry about yours and see as the time draws near."
Mr. Hernandez, whose committee and PMG Associates presented survey results to the county's Transportation, Infrastructure & Environment Committee Feb. 18, emphasized the urgency of the county's need for steady transportation funds.
"We're not trying to sway everyone one way or another. We're just trying to inform everyone," he said. "This area is going to be very, very hard hit - worse than now - if this is not passed."