Sales-tax question heads for November ballot as Miami-Dade seeks traffic solutions, federal funds
By Frank Norton
Miami-Dade County commissioners hope an additional half-cent sales tax will expand service on 13 bus routes as early as November and begin work by 2005 on elements of a large-scale road and rail master plan.
If approved by county voters this November, the transportation sales tax would be levied on all transactions by January except those involving certain medicines and food and items costing $5,000 or more.
Commissioners on Tuesday approved the referendum seeking a dedicated transit tax as well as creation of an oversight board to audit and investigate all future transit projects that involve dedicated county, state or federal funds.
The new tax, if approved, would collect about $150 million a year for transportation improvements.
Commissioner Bruno Barreiro was able to tack on an amendment to the half-cent tax that, if OK'd, would lift charges on downtown Miami's Metro-Mover and expand the existing Golden Passport mass transit service to persons over 65 years old, regardless of income.
The commissioner had originally pushed for a referendum on a full-penny tax which, he said, would expedite the project schedules and offer free mass transit throughout the county. But he acquiesced Tuesday to fellow commissioners who argued that voters would turn down the higher tax.
"We really need to have the dedicated funding in place so we can get a federal match on those dollars," Commissioner Katie Sorenson said Tuesday. "Other communities that have a dedicated source of funding are ahead of us in line and are able to get the money from the feds before those that don't."
Commissioner Sorenson was referring to the county's need to show that a dedicated source of transportation funding is in place by November in order to meet the federal government's next deadline for matching funds.
The county plans to use the additional revenue to expand the Metro-Rail to include a northern corridor from Martin Luther King station to Pro Player Stadium, an east-west corridor from Miami Beach to the Florida Turnpike and several other tracks linking the airport, the northeast, Kendall and Florida City with downtown.
The entire rail project, which is to include light rail sections such as a planned Bay Link line from Miami Beach to downtown Miami, is proposed to be developed in phases over 26 years beginning in 2005.
A comprehensive rubber and rail transit plan is badly needed to improve the flow of people and goods in and out of the area said Beacon Council CEO Frank Nero, speaking at the county commission meeting. Without that expansion, Miami-Dade will fail as both a distribution hub and gateway city.
He said representatives for many prospective companies ask the Beacon Council, Miami-Dade's economic development agency, to evaluate what their commute times would be here. "Even when we lie," he said, "it's bad."
The commission approved the half-cent sales tax referendum by a margin of seven, with commissioners Joe Martinez, Javier Souto and Natacha Seijas voting against it.
As for the citizen's review board, some commissioners expressed dismay at the prospect of being micro-managed by a group of appointees who will ultimately share use of their staff. Most said mistrust in elected officials remains and a review board is a necessary evil.
"If that's what the people want, I'll support it," said Commissioner Jimmy Morales. "I don't want to jeopardize the program, but I don't need 15 people telling me how to spend the money when they have the same information I do."
The review board, pushed heavily by county Mayor Alex Penelas, will include one commission appointee from each of the 13 districts in the county. Mayor Penelas said the trust was structured to achieve geographic balance and representation.