$2 fee the roadblock in conversion of Tri-Rail to transit czar
By Frank Norton
A bill to expand South Florida's Tri-Rail agency into a mass transit authority could sail through the Senate this month but faces an uphill battle in the more conservative House, state delegates say.
The basic plan calls for expanding the existing Tri-County Commuter Rail Authority, or Tri-Rail, into a broader agency to coordinate all rail, bus and other mass transit in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties.
Although support for the concept is widespread in both houses, a partisan rift is emerging over how the new authority should be financed, if at all.
The most popular option is a $2 fee on all vehicle registrations and renewals in the three-county area, which would generate an initial revenue stream of about $8 million a year.
Conservative delegates, however, criticize that scheme as unnecessary taxation.
"I don't support the $2 fee because we've already been subject to a number of taxes in the past year and a half," said Rep. Marco Rubio, house majority leader and Miami-Dade Republican.
"It's a philosophical belief that we should not raise the cost of living for our residents," he said when asked how much a $2 annual fee would burden low-income motorists.
He said he isn't sure whether the measure will pass at all given the fiscally conservative bends of the senate and especially the house.
The Tri-Rail Authority, forged in 1989 to build the three-county commuter rail, already has the ability to issue bonds, enter contracts and buy land - powers that would carry over into the expanded regional authority if the legislation prevails.
Backers of a unified regional transit authority say it would better coordinate inter-county transit service and achieve greater clout in purchasing and operations.
Most say a $2 tag fee is the best way to fund the expansion of rail and multi-modal infrastructure in the three-county area.
Short-range RTA projects include:
Dolphin Extension - commuter rail service from the Miami Airport Station along State Road 836 to Southwest 117th Avenue.
Okeechobee Boulevard - Rapid bus transit from Wellington to Downtown West Palm Beach, including the Tri-Rail station.
Ludlam-Flamingo Road - Rapid Bus Transit from Hialeah to Fort Lauderdale.
East-West Shuttle Bus - expanded feeder lines from Tri-Rail stations to high-traffic destinations.
Jupiter Extension - Commuter rail service from the existing South Florida Rail Corridor (SFRC) line north of the Tri-Rail West Palm Beach station north to the FEC rail right-of-way.
"If it's going to help us streamline, coordinate and draw in federal dollars I'm in favor. But what we don't want is just another bureaucracy that could be $2 today and $10 tomorrow," Rep. Rubio said.
Other conservatives agreed.
Rep. Carl Domino, a Republican from Palm Beach, said he also supports the regional authority concept but not a new tax.
He said rather than a new fee, each county should carve out part of its existing tax revenue. He insisted the $2 annual fee would burden some tri-county residents.
"The question here is why can't you use other funding sources," he said.
Other Republican state delegates, including Rep. Connie Mack, have also criticized the tag fee proposal as an unnecessary tax - a viewpoint that Rep. Domino said holds considerable sway.
Some delegates say a divisive enough debate could kill the proposal for a regional authority altogether.
According to Sen. Steve Geller, a Democrat, the final outcome rests not just on partisan values but on the ability of South Florida legislators to forge consensus.
"We have pretty unanimous support from the Miami-Dade delegation and almost unanimous support from Broward. Palm Beach is where you start to run into some problems," he said, referring to an allegiance among some Palm Beach legislators to the conservative Freedom Caucus, which stands against new taxes.
He said the greatest opposition to funding a new bureaucracy would come in the more conservative House.
House Speaker "Johnnie Byrd is not exactly liberal and there is formidable opposition," he said. Mr. Byrd could not be reached for comment. "But he has said if there is local consensus he'll go along, if there isn't, he won't," said Sen. Geller, the bill's lead sponsor in the Senate. Republican Rep. Marcelo Llorente is the lead sponsor in the House.
According to state planners, the $8 million annually generated by a license-tag fee could leverage up to $64 million a year in state and federal matching funds.
Backers hope to win state approval by April to begin applying for federal Transportation Equity Act matching funds by a November deadline.
If they fail, the tri-county area must wait six years to be eligible again for those funds.
"Unless it's funded it's not going to lever anything," said Rep. Richard Machek, Palm Beach delegation chair and a Democrat. "All you got to do is make one or two trips up or down I-95 and you'll be thinking of all kinds of fees," he said.
"A lot of dollars are at stake, and if we don't do it this year I don't think we could come back for six more."