Most of revenue from transit tax sits idle
By Shannon Pettypiece
The half-penny tax tacked onto most dollars spent in Miami-Dade County is building a multimillion-dollar transportation fund expected to improve transit for the next 20 years.
Of more than $81 million collected from the tax since January, only $16 million has been spent - disbursed to the county's municipalities, as mandated by voters. The ballot issue said 20% of money collected from the tax must be distributed to local governments.
While many improvements have been made, none of the money has gone toward rail and bus improvements, Surface Transportation Manager Carlos Bonzon said.
The county used money in its general transit fund to pay for those improvements. The money will be refunded to the county out of the transportation fund when the county's transit department requests reimbursement, said Mr. Bonzon, who serves as a county liaison to the citizens group monitoring the tax revenue.
Since the transportation-improvement plan went into effect, Metrorail hours have been extended to 24 hours and trains are running more frequently than before. Metromover service is now free, with the downtown loop running 24 hours and the outer loops running until midnight.
Last month, Mr. Cosgrove suggested that the watchdog group, the Citizens Independent Transportation Trust, reconsider the rail-hour extensions because ridership has not increased enough to validate additional costs.
Michael DeCossio of Miami-Dade Transit said improvements to rail service have cost $1 million, paid for with the department's operating funds, which will eventually be reimbursed.
The trust last month approved spending $2.3 million to overhaul Metrorail, but the money has not been doled out.
Other improvements that will be paid for with surtax revenue include 4.6 million miles of additional bus service, 71 new buses and additional routes.
On Saturday, members of the citizens trust held a four-hour summit on the transportation tax to tell the public how money has been spent and what is on the horizon.
Many people at the workshop had complaints about bus service.
Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas and county commission Chairwoman Barbara Carey-Shuler were scheduled to attend the meeting, but neither were there.
In the next five years, Mr. Bonzon said, he sees the group tackling roadway and infrastructure improvements such as new traffic lights, bus shelters and sidewalks.
The Miami-Dade County Public Works Department is advertising 14 contracts worth $12.5 million, which they hope to partially finance with surtax revenue.
"It gives us the ability to do more than we could have done with our current budget," said Public Works Assistant Director Jose Galan.
The Public Works Department is asking for $2 million from the tax to pay for a $37 million Grand Boulevard project proposed by the City of Miami in its transportation master plan. The proposal calls for removal of Interstate 95 ramps and the creation of a central entrance to downtown.
In addition, the city is seeking a $5.5 million loan from the surtax to pay for an additional lane on Northwest 62nd Avenue in Hialeah. The city expects to pay back $600,000 a year on the loan.
Among other roadway projects vying for surtax funds are traffic-signal improvements, a feasibility study for a tunnel under the Miami River and construction on Northwest 87th Avenue between 154th Street and Miami Gardens Drive.
Citizens trust Vice Chairman Mark Buoniconti said extending Metrorail in all directions will be the group's main focus when looking at how to spend the tax.
"We have two priorities, the north corridor and the east-west corridor," Mr. Buoniconti said.
The trust has approval authority over all county commission-backed contracts requesting surtax funds and projects passed by voters.
Last week marked the one-year anniversary of the approval of the tax and the creation of the citizens trust, which is four members short of capacity and shares county staff.
"We are going through some birthing pains getting this thing going, but we are moving forward," Mr. Cosgrove said.
The group has been meeting only since May, when county commissioners appointed the majority of their members.
Strides have been made in the past month to help the group get working, with the county manager's office helping it find a financial adviser and executive director.
Mr. Burgess has recommended a current county employee for the executive director post, Mr. Cosgrove said, and the person will be formally appointed soon.
A committee of trust members will look for a financial adviser from the county's pool of prescreened professionals or go outside the county if it chooses.
Mr. Cosgrove said the county manager will make the final hiring.
"He'll let the trust make a selection and submit it back to him," Mr. Cosgrove said. "Unless there is some egregious reason, he would appoint them."
In addition to lacking staff, the group has not received a 30-year spending plan it requested from the county months ago that would outline how much money is expected to be collected and spent.
Others at Saturday's transportation meeting included Mr. Burgess and two county commissioners, Dennis Moss, who sits on the county's transportation committee, and Bruno Barriero, who worked on the campaign to get the surtax passed.
"We are still going through a learning curve," Commissioner Moss said. "It is my responsibility to implement and make sure the People's Transportation Plan goes forward."