County may use CRA's future for tunnel money leverage
By Risa Polansky
Miami commissioners' vote this month to deny community redevelopment agency funds to Miami-Dade County's pet port tunnel project unless the agency is guaranteed to recoup the money could jeopardize the agency's future, city and county officials say.
Miami's promised $50 million contribution to the $1 billion tunnel has been a lingering missing link in the process of getting the project underway.
City administrators have since May cited redevelopment dollars as the only planned source for the payment despite resistance from commissioners, who sit as the agency's board.
Recouping the $50 million is unlikely, said City Manager Pete Hernandez.
"It's something that cannot be guaranteed," he said. "Not even the county can count on recovering its own investment."
In order to fund the tunnel and to continue generating revenue to contribute to revitalizing the area, both the agency's lifespan and boundaries would need to be expanded to stretch past 2017 and include Watson Island where the port tunnel is to be dug — ultimately, a county decision.
Mr. Hernandez said he fears the commission's virtual denial of money could keep county commissioners from supporting the agency's future.
If commissioners as the agency board continue to deny funds to county projects, as they have with a proposed Florida Marlins baseball stadium and now the tunnel, "I don't see the county considering expanding or extending," he said.
County Commissioner Joe Martinez said in an e-mail that "at this point and time, I don't believe expanding the boundaries would benefit the county or the residents in the CRA."
Even a change of heart on the part of agency board members regarding the tunnel, he said, would not win his vote.
While he has not made up his mind about whether to support extending the agency's lifespan, County Commissioner José "Pepe" Diaz said he is "extremely upset" the city committed to contributing the money but can't seem to put it up.
The tunnel, he said, doesn't benefit just the county but also "benefits the City of Miami greatly."
The agency board's decision "could" affect his vote when deciding its fate, Mr. Diaz said, but he plans to carefully review the implications because "we can't be selfish, either."
County Commissioner Audrey Edmonson, whose district takes in areas of Miami such as Overtown, declined to comment on how denial of the funds could affect her decision.
"Right now, I have not made up my mind," she said, adding that she does, however, believe a port tunnel would benefit the whole county.
The remaining 10 members of the county commission did not return calls or e-mails for comment.
Some city commissioners have for months been predicting county resistance.
"The county has to approve the geographical boundaries and the limits," Marc Sarnoff said in March. "They want certain things from the City of Miami. Otherwise, they won't cooperate in expanding the CRA."
He this month voted against denying redevelopment money to the tunnel, saying he believes relieving downtown of truck traffic could also help relieve it of blight — the main goal of a redevelopment agency.
Joe Sanchez, who also voted against denying funds, said in June:
"The county is the 800-pound gorilla — we are negotiating with the 800-pound gorilla. There's a lot of things tied up here. We should have all our options open, period."
But the agency should call the county's bluff and challenge it to responsibly do what's best for the people, countered Tomás Regalado at the March meeting.
"For the county to come and bully the City of Miami or the CRA is wrong," he said. "Extending the life of the CRA to help in the needed area is the right thing to do."
He led the charge to deny redevelopment funds to the tunnel.
City Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones, chair of the redevelopment agency board, said she is confident the county and agency can work things out.
"The extension benefits both parties," she said in an e-mail. "I'm sure we will find a compromise for the residents and business owners in the area."
City commissioners are to be asked after this month's recess — as commissioners only, not as redevelopment agency board members — to officially support a city contribution of $50 million to the tunnel.
Should they vote in favor, Mr. Hernandez said he would return to the redevelopment agency board and ask for a reversal of the vote to deny the funds without a guarantee the money would be recouped.
"I think it would make sense to go back to the CRA," he said, having previously acknowledged he does not know of a viable funding alternative.