County expects big chunk of federal funds for transportation
By Shannon Pettypiece
Miami-Dade County is poised to reap a chunk of federal transportation dollars to be doled out next year by Congress, federal and local officials said.
Because of a half-cent sales surtax that county voters approved in November and this year's creation of a South Florida-wide transportation board, Regional Transportation Authority Executive Director Joe Giulietti said, Miami-Dade is a strong contender for a portion of the $200 to $300 billion the federal government will distribute for highways and public transportation in the next six years.
With the creation of the Regional Transportation Authority, Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties became a regional area in the eyes of the federal government. That makes Miami-Dade part of the fifth-largest urban area in the country - trailing New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Philadelphia.
"We are in an extremely enviable position to go after some programs," Mr. Giulietti said.
With the half-cent surtax earmarked for transportation needs, the county is more competitive for federal funds, he said, because the revenue enables the county to produce matching funds needed to get federal money.
"The more local money you can put up, the better chances you have of getting projects through," Mr. Giulietti said. "Local funds can be leveraged against federal funds."
Many other urban areas can't find matching funds because of huge deficits, officials said.
The current federal transportation-funding law expires Tuesday, but Congress is expected to pass a five- to six-month extension would set levels for the next six years. Under a plan being proposed by the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, the federal government would raise its gasoline tax to 23.5 cents per gallon from the current 18.5 cents.
Discussion on the tax increase and transportation-funding package could start as early as March 2004.
Rep. Tom Petri of Wisconsin, vice chairman of the transportation committee, said the tax, approved in 1993, must be raised because inflation has eroded its revenue power.
Rep. Petri was in Miami-Dade on Monday to tour the county's transportation projects and promote the bill.
The plan proposed by the House committee would increase federal transportation funds for Florida by $4.5 billion during the next six years, he said.
While dipping into taxpayers' pockets can be a touchy issue, the congressman said, commuters will pay one way or another.
"We are either going to pay blowing gas out of our tailpipes, or we're going to pay through a user fee," Rep. Petri said. "You don't pay it if you don't use the road."
Motorists in Greater Miami spend an average $300 a year in costs related to traffic accidents, $215 in repairs to damage caused by poor roads and $600 a year in time and fuel wasted because of traffic congestion, according to the Road Information Program, a non-profit transportation consultant.
As of this year, most South Florida lobbyists in Washington, DC will work together to get money for the tri-county area instead of for each separate county, Mr. Giulietti said.
Some projects local officials said they would like to finance with federal money include a Metrorail extension to a planned transportation center near Miami International Airport that would run along Dolphin Expressway and coordination between Tri-Rail and each of the counties' bus systems and among the three counties' airports and seaports.