Miami-Dade plans to spend $503 million on transportation next year
By Shannon Pettypiece
Get on the bus, get on the train and get out of that car.
That is the theme for 2004 as Miami-Dade County invests a half-billion dollars in transportation improvements.
The most noticeable transit projects coming online this year will be $2.1 million worth of additional bus service, improved Tri-Rail and Metrorail cars and road and traffic signals.
According to the county's transportation spending plan for this year, $503.3 million will go toward transportation improvements, with $163 million coming from a voter-mandated sales surtax, $118.6 million from general funds and millions from federal grants.
Of transportation expenditures planned, $40 million will go to refurbishing Metrorail trains, $29.7 million to new busses and $32 million to road improvements.
But the real action will take place behind the scenes, where planning will begin on a half-dozen new Metrorail lines and transit officials make a final push for federal funding.
By 2012, transportation planners expect to complete five Metrorail projects:
An extension north of Northwest 79th Street to the county line.
A line from the Earlington Heights station at Southwest 22nd Avenue and State Route 112 to a planned transportation hub near Miami International Airport, which would allow commuters to go directly to the airport.
A light-rail connector between Miami and Miami Beach.
A line west to Florida International University in Tamiami.
An extension south to Kendall.
Construction for those projects is scheduled to begin in 2007 or 2009 and is expected to take four years.
The next obstacle for most of the projects is federal approval and funding. One project, the extension north to the county line, has received Federal Transportation Administration approval.
Miami-Dade Transit took a significant step last month in its plan to connect Port of Miami to Miami International Airport by putting out a request for design and engineering services on an extension to the port. Also, the county's transit planning board, the Metropolitan Planning Organization, has decided on a route for an extension to Miami International Airport.
Beyond county lines, a push to move regional transportation is under way as the newly formed South Florida Regional Transportation Authority. In the coming year, the authority is expected to complete more phases on a Tri-Rail double-tracking program, introduce a new railcar and evaluate the possibility of commuter service on the Florida East Coast Railway line running through downtown Miami, said spokeswoman Bonnie Arnold.
The authority rang in the new year by adding a sleek, fuel-efficient railcar to Tri-Rail that can carry 18% more passengers than current cars. Six new cars will run on the line.
The new train is operating on a two-year trial period paid for with federal and state grants.
An additional 10 miles of Tri-Rail track will go online next month, improving train frequency as part of the double-tracking program. Currently, Tri-Rail shares tracks with commuter rail line Amtrak, and trains must pull over when to allow another commuter train to pass. By 2005, the double-tracking program will be complete.
With more than $100 million collected from the half-penny sales surtax last year and eight months of experience under their belt, members of the transit-spending watchdog group, the Citizens' Independent Transportation Trust, feel they are through the "birthing pains," as trust chairman John Cosgrove says.
While it took the voter-mandated trust a while to get moving, officials say the group will begin making bigger strides this year toward transit expansion.
"This child has grown and is out of the playpen and walking," County Manager George Burgess said during a December interview.
The trust has an executive director in place but is still searching for a financial advisor, said Mr. Cosgrove. The trust has a selection committee and will soon advertise the position. The group will look outside the county's pool of 11 approved advisors to maintain its independence, Mr. Cosgrove said.
A financial advisor would not be a full-time employee but a firm that would review contracts and project bids. The trust must authorize all spending of the half-cent tax.
Mr. Cosgrove said the trust could have used a financial advisor when it was asked to approve a $235 million contract between Miami-Dade Transit and Penske Corp. for bus maintenance. Mr. Cosgrove said the trust did not have adequate resources to review such a large of contract to ensure that the money would be well-spent.
"I think some kind of independent review by someone is needed to verify whether those figures are correct," Mr. Cosgrove said. "We are talking big, big money here."
Despite collection of the surtax, the county's grand plan still rests on how much money Congress will provide for mass transit and how it will be allocated.
The current transportation-funding law is set to expire Feb. 29, and a new one likely will come with increased funding for public transportation over the next six years.
The House Transportation Committee will begin working on a bill after it returns Tuesday from recess, said Daniel Duff, vice president of government affairs for the American Public Transportation Association. He speculated that a bill wouldn't get to the full House before March, necessitating another extension to the current funding law.
Under the $375 billion House bill, Florida would get double its current funding and $11 billion for highways, creating 72,000 to 118,000 jobs in the state each year for the next six years.
The bill also calls for $21 billion in discretionary funds for specific projects nationwide. The newly formed South Florida Regional Transportation Authority wants $75 million a year over the next six years - a $46 million increase.
Mr. Cosgrove said he will go to Washington this year to lobby for matching funds for projects that will be paid for with sales-tax dollars.
The main debate on Capitol Hill will not be the level of funding but how to pay for it, Mr. Duff said. One controversial option in the bill is to raise the gasoline tax.
"I don't see mass transit being broken off," Mr. Duff said. "The issue is going to be how we fund the bill."