Shortfall in federal transportation funds imperils large-scale local, state projects
By Frank Norton
Dwindling federal transit dollars could snarl large-scale projects in Miami-Dade County, The Florida Department of Transportation says, but local legislators do not appear rattled.
State Transportation Secretary Jose Abreu told members of the Miami-Dade delegation Tuesday that the county may need to cut $35 million a year from its transportation budget starting in 2008, based on a federal shortfall in transit dollars. Mr. Abreu leads the transportation department's district for Miami-Dade and Monroe counties.
Reactions from legislators ranged from mildly upset to optimistic that other funds could be sought.
"It's disappointing to hear and we need to be creative about getting more money into the coffers without raising taxes," said Miami-Dade Rep. Manuel Prieguez, who last year served on the Transportation and Economic Development Appropriations Committee.
"If we're talking about federal dollars we need to advocate our needs to our congressmen," he said.
The underlying problem, according to state transportation officials, is a projected shortfall in federal fuel-tax collections caused by the downturn in the economy and conversions to gasohol.
That not only pushes back the Palmetto Expressway's lane-expansion plan until 2004, it could also jeopardize the county's 25-year, $17 billion plan to overhaul one of the least-developed metropolitan transit systems in the nation.
According to updated projections, while county bonds would mitigate local transportation spending deficits during the next five years, long-term funding shortfalls estimated at $35 million after 2008, will be nearly impossible to head off with out drastic budget revisions.
"This forecast came to us out of nowhere," Mr. Abreu told the delegation. "I've been here 18 years and I've never seen a federal forecast missed like this," he said after the meeting.
"The news exacerbates our transportation budget concerns and we obviously need to find a way to make up for the shortage," said Rep. Phillip Brutus, who did not attend the meeting but reacted later to the news.
"We could cover it by possibly earmarking other funds... and getting our legislators to support this issue," he said, referring both Florida legislators and congressional delegates. "But it's potentially horrible."
Fewer than 10 of the nearly 30 local legislators attended the transportation portion of Tuesday's meeting at the Kendall campus of Miami-Dade Community College. The agenda included presentations from more than 50 departments and local organizations.
This week, Mr. Abreu also plans to warn county planners of the projected shortfall in funds. He said local planners have to rethink their approach to transportation and, indeed, all public works funding in light of tightening federal support.
Plus, lower federal tax revenues and a national shift toward defense and security spending could shrink local allocations even more, analysts and politicians say.
Two weeks ago, a bipartisan group of 43 senators signed a letter to President Bush urging him to "support America's public transit systems by ensuring that these systems receive the resources they need to keep America moving."
The letter, sent in anticipation of the 2003 debate on the reauthorization of federal transit funds, was signed by 35 Democrats, seven Republicans and one independent.
Neither of Florida's Democratic senators endorsed the letter, for reasons not explained by their Washington staffs.
According to one analyst, Florida's share of a shrinking federal pie is precarious at best.
"States like Florida would lose out on the transit side if these funds are not rewritten at least in their current form. There seems to be a legislative power shift toward western states," said James Corless, of the Washington, DC-based Surface Transportation Policy Project.
Miami-Dade's long-term transportation plan outlines more than 100 projects, including $5.8 billion in highway improvements, $3.4 billion in transit infrastructure and $5.9 billion in operations and maintenance costs.
Large-scale projects that could see delays include the planned light rail system linking Miami to Miami Beach, a heavy rail connection from western areas to downtown Miami, and an emerging plan to reroute Interstate 395 underground through downtown Miami.
"Our priorities won't change but the projects may have to be delayed. It's going to take longer to do the work than we previously thought," said Jose Luis Mesa, secretariat of Miami-Dade's Metropolitan Planning Organization.
"This is a federal and local concern, but it's still a projection and not a reality yet," said Rep. Wilbert T. Holloway, who also missed the annual delegation meeting. "We're a resilient community and I am sure we'll find a way to bounce back."