Miami officials plan to use community development funds for tunnel
By Risa Polansky
Plan A for funding the City of Miami's $50 million share of the proposed Port of Miami tunnel is to use Omni Community Redevelopment Agency funds, an administrator says.
But obstacles must be overcome: the agency's current lifespan and boundaries prohibit it, the plan has yet to go before the agency board — where there is already opposition — and there is no Plan B other than using general tax revenues.
"What we're looking at is funding all $50 million by the CRA," said city Chief Financial Officer Larry Spring. There is "nothing concrete at this point in time" in terms of finding another source of funding for the millions the city has promised the state toward the $1-plus billion project, he said.
Because current Omni Community Redevelopment Agency boundaries do not encompass Watson Island, where the tunnel is to be dug, and the redevelopment agency's lifespan does not run past 2017, the agency board, the city and the county must first expand and extend the district.
Should the county choose not to expand the agency, or should the agency board deny the city funds, "Obviously we would have to consider using city ad valorem or non-ad valorem based revenue to make that contribution" to the port tunnel, Mr. Spring said.
He hopes to have items enabling agency expansion and port tunnel funding on city and agency agendas within 30 days, he said.
A forecast he prepared illustrating how the agency could fund the tunnel while continuing to support redevelopment projects shows "the city can make its contribution and still have plenty of money left over to bond," Mr. Spring said, to "keep the CRA a very vibrant area, to redevelop the CRA area."
The projections, calculated for the proposed expanded district, are based on tax revenues that could be generated by yet-to-be constructed projects in the area, but only those officially approved by the city to date, Mr. Spring said.
These include City Square, a mixed-use development planned for Miami Herald-owned land across from the Carnival Center for the Performing Arts.
According to the forecast, if the agency were to provide funds to both the port tunnel and the arts center — another project in need of a boost — next year, it would still have more than $6 million to devote to other projects.
If new developments rise as planned, generating more revenue for the district, it shows the $50 million in tunnel funding being paid off by 2042, leaving almost $168.5 million to other projects and bonds that year.
Agency executive director James Villacorta has worked with Mr. Spring to explore how the agency could help fund the project but has not committed the board, made up of all of Miami's commissioners, to anything, he said. In fact, he has not presented the issue for board discussion.
"You work on projects, and then you present them to the board," he said. "They set the policy. Nobody elected me."
The plan has been "mentioned to the board members individually," Mr. Villacorta said. "I know they're aware of it. I don't know if they're in favor of it."
Commissioner Tomás Regalado has made it clear he is not, calling the staff-concocted plans "backroom deals this administration does all the time."
Agency board chairwoman Michelle Spence-Jones said the same.
"Administration does that," she said, adding she was confused as to why city staffers would rely on the agency when board members "have already said clearly they have issues and concerns. That's why stuff has to come before the city commission to be vetted."
Claims that expanding the agency would go to the greater good of a blighted area, Mr. Regalado said, are "wrong. It's immoral.
"The only reason to expand the boundaries is to have an excuse to fund the tunnel," he said. "It's completely out of the scope of the CRA to fund the tunnel. I just don't see a tunnel as part of the redevelopment of the area — that would be an excuse, not a reason."
However, Mr. Villacorta said, a statute permits redevelopment agencies to be created to "fix transportation issues" such as "improper street layouts."
The trucks the port brings onto the mainland, he said, create "somewhat of a dangerous situation," and may be "one of the blighted factors you're looking to remedy" in expanding the agency's boundaries.
While Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, who represents the area, said he is "not sure" how he views using redevelopment funds for the tunnel, he said he does think "it would help the Omni district by taking the truck traffic off Fifth and Sixth streets."
Ms. Spence-Jones said that, for now, she and the rest of the board are awaiting Mr. Sarnoff's views as commissioner representing the Omni Community Redevelopment Agency's district.
Mr. Regalado tried in March to pass a sweeping resolution denying redevelopment agency funds to city and county pet projects.
While fellow commissioners agreed a Marlins stadium and city streetcar will never receive agency funds, they did not formally take the tunnel or the arts center off the table.
Mr. Regalado said he will continue to propose legislation denying the city the funds.
A state selection committee has selected a team to construct the tunnel, last week naming Bouygues Publics Travaux for construction; Babcock & Brown for banking; Jacobs Engineering; and Transfield Services for transport operations.