Sales tax not enough to pay for transit projects, county says
By Shannon Pettypiece
Mass-transit expansions promised to voters when they approved a half-cent sales-tax increase will be impossible without significant federal and state funding and a fare increase voters never learned about, according to Miami-Dade County administrators.
If the county doesn't get state aid beyond a recent $100 million Florida Department of Transportation grant, its transportation expansion plan will be in the red by 2013 with a $663 million deficit by 2033, according to a study performed by the county.
Without state or federal funds, the county faces a $3.6 billion deficit by 2033, according to the study.
County officials say they need Washington to pay 50% and the state 25% of the cost of Metrorail extensions west to Florida International University, east to the Port of Miami, north to the county line and south to Florida City. Planners also need outside funds for a light-rail link to Miami Beach.
Voters were told they would get all those new lines in 30 years if they approved the sales-tax increase in November 2002.
Tax revenue is meeting projections and should bring in $17 billion by 2020. But as planners lay out how that money will be spent over the next 30 years, they see where gaps could occur.
Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Jose Abreu said Tuesday that the 25% state funding goal is feasible but the 50% federal goal is less reliable.
Regions used to be able to ask for a 50% federal match, he said, but because Florida historically gets few US transit dollars and there is fierce competition from other cities, 50% might not be realistic.
"We are in competition with the rest of the nation," Mr. Abreu said. "Whoever has the greater match has a better chance."
Even with federal and state funds, without a fare hike, the project faces a $1.9 billion deficit by 2033.
Metrorail and county bus fares are to rise 25 cents in 2011 and again in 2016 and 50 cents in 2021, pending county commission approval. If the county doesn't get the state funds, fares would rise 25 cents in 2010 and 50 cents in 2015, 2020 and 2025.
Mr. Abreu said a fare hike might be needed to win federal funds because the county must prove it can afford to operate the systems if the federal government helps pay for them.
Hilda Fernandez, executive director of the surtax-spending watchdog group, the Citizens' Independent Transportation Trust, said the public was always told that the promised projects were pending state and federal money.
"Throughout the campaign, there were no guarantees. But we did say it puts us in a position to be competitive" said Ms. Fernandez, who helped run the surtax campaign while working for Mayor Alex Penelas.
But she said there was never talk during the campaign about raising fares. Instead, the campaign focused on how the half-cent tax would expand service, not operate it.
"During the campaign, a fare increase was never brought up," Ms. Fernandez said. "The tax was always to improve the system by adding service, but the fare increase is to maintain service."