Transportation panel unhappy with county's handling of funds
By Shannon Pettypiece
Members of a watchdog group created to regulate spending on local transportation projects say they want more control over funds from Miami-Dade County's half-cent sales tax.
At stake, as of June, is $70 million in new revenue earmarked for transit, but the money is being combined on the county's financial books with funds from state, federal and other local sources, said John Cosgrove, chairman of the Citizens Independent Transportation Trust. The county estimates that next year $154 million will be collected.
"The sales tax should be separate from the general funds, and departments should have to submit budget requests to the trust to get funding," said Mr. Cosgrove.
The citizens' trust, a voter-mandated watchdog group, say the public was told their organization, not the county, would control the money. When voters approved the transportation-designated tax in November, they also mandated creation of the trust as an independent body to oversee spending of that revenue.
"The county manager has described the transit funding as several different parts all funneling together into one funding stream, and that is not the way it should be," Mr. Cosgrove said.
With the tax revenue going into the county's coffers, he said, it is difficult for the group to have control over spending as voters intended. Members are trying to meet with the county manager to discuss the issue, he said last week.
"We are watching out for attempts of cost-shifting from projects already planned and committed to prior to passing that tax that would now be shifted to the CITT," Mr. Cosgrove said.
He said the county has already tried to use the tax funds for groundskeeping and painting projects that should have been done before the tax existed.
In addition to adjusting their finances, the trust also plans to consider scaling back some transportation improvements voters were promised, he said.
Extension of Metrorail and Metromover service to 24 hours per day has been costly, but few commuters have used the services during extended hours. Ridership on Metromover has increased about 51% in the past year, but use of Metrorail has only slightly increased, according to county documents.
"The 24-hour service doesn't seem to be drawing the number it was expected to," Mr. Cosgrove said. "Why would you keep throwing money at something that is not effective when you could reinvest that money?"
Metrorail carries 1.1 million passengers and Metromover 564,582 each month.
Improvements to Metrobus apparently have been more effective, as ridership has increased 7%. Average monthly bus ridership is 4.8 million, according to documents.
The county's budget calls for a slower expansion of bus service than originally planned to reduce costs. Instead of adding 150 busses by October 2004, as the Office of Public Transportation Management originally planned, the county's budget suggests that only 30 be added.
"By slowing the expansion rate, we can reduce budgeted positions by 209," Mr. Burgess said in a written statement.
The slower expansion could save $6 million while still fulfilling the county's promise to double the bus fleet by 2007.
Transit fares and fees are expected to be more than $7 million less than projections of $73.8 million this year, county documents say.
County Manager George Burgess said he expects to deliver by the end of this month an updated version of the People's Transportation Plan approved by voters in November. The amended version would adjust the plan to take into account the shortfall in fares, changes to union contracts and adjustments to employees' retirement and health-insurance plans.