Trio of commissioners present plans for paying for transit expansion
By Ted Carter
Business and civic leaders heard a pitch Friday for higher fares and gas taxes as the best way to keep a 30-year-old promise to extend Metrorail service up a north Miami-Dade corridor to predominantly African-American communities.
"I think we have to entertain everything possible to get the resources," said Miami-Dade Commissioner Barbara Jordan of the long-planned 9.5-mile Phase 2 Orange Line extension of the Metrorail system. The extension is designed to serve the communities along Northwest Seventh Avenue with seven new stations from Northwest 82nd Street to Northwest 215th Street.
County Commission Chairman Bruno Barreiro and Commissioner Carlos Gimenez joined Ms. Jordan in speaking to a session of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce's Transportation Committee on the opening day of the business organization's two-day goals-setting gathering.
Mr. Gimenez said he can't support Ms. Jordan's across-the-board fare hikes. Nor, he said, can he support her plan to eliminate free rides for low-income veterans and the elderly and reduced fares for the disabled and public school students.
But he said he wants transit projects to start getting a share of impact fees developers pay in exchange for building projects in high-density areas. This would prove a useful approach, he said, when "you can't do more capacity improvements for roads."
Mr. Gimenez said he is preparing an ordinance for the commission to consider this summer that would expand impact fee uses to include capital projects for transit and possibly operation of bus lines.
He supports the long-promised extension of the Orange Line up the north Miami-Dade corridor but said he thinks ceaseless gas-price increases will generate huge demand for transit. That makes this a bad time to raise fares and restore a two-penny-a-gallon gas tax for transit, Mr. Gimenez said.
He wants the line, he said, but added: "I'm not going to sell my firstborn to do this."
At some point, the county may have to opt instead for an improved and more efficient bus line along the north corridor at "one-seventh of the cost" of a rail line, Mr. Gimenez said.
This year the transit system belatedly began applying standards on ridership numbers. That led to scrapping several bus routes. "We saved $13 million doing that, which can be put to the Orange Line," Mr. Gimenez said.
The increases in fares and gas taxes as well as rider-pass eliminations are to come before the commission June 17. Supporters such as Ms. Jordan say the tens of millions of dollars the transit-fee package would generate would show federal transit officials the county is able to meet its share of financial obligations on the Orange Line extension. That, in turn, could lead to restoration of funding the feds withdrew over concerns the county would not have the money to adequately operate the line once it opened.
The line is to run from the existing elevated guideway just north of the Martin Luther King Jr. Metrorail station at Northwest 62nd Street, serving the communities along the Northwest 27th Avenue corridor, Miami Dade College and the sports venues at Dolphin Stadium and Calder Race Course. It would end, transit officials say, at Northwest 215th Street just south of Florida's Turnpike and be designed for further extension into Broward or to link up to a transit line from that county.
Chairman Barreiro supports Ms. Jordan's proposal but has suggested an alternative of eliminating all fares and replacing them with a penny sales tax that would also replace a half-penny tax approved by voters in 2002. Half a penny would go for operation and maintenance of the transit system and the rest to capital costs, he said.
"Any major transit system has to be subsidized by a dedicated funding source," Mr. Barreiro said.
"Continuing to increase fares? Is that going to be a solution?
"I think a sales tax is the way to go."
He said he envisions county transit as "a seamless system of trains" that encourages more riders by not making them change from bus to train. But he warned against relying too much on the federal government to achieve the seamless system. Often, the difficulties of meeting Washington's mandates make it better to go it alone, said Mr. Barreiro, who is halfway through the last year of his two-year chairmanship.
Federal transit officials discourage the kind of negotiating county staff undertook at commission direction that resulted in saving $11 million on replacing fare boxes throughout the system, he said.
In this instance, the county put the two top bidders in separate rooms and had them come out later with their best prices, he said.
Invited to address the goals conference session, Assistant County Manager Ysela Llort warned that the county must keep leaning on the state to ensure it contributes a promised $721 million share of phases two and three of the Orange Line. "We need to keep an eye on the state dollars," she said.
In a later interview, Ms. Llort clarified confusion over whether the commission will consider reinstating a 25-cent charge for the Metromover. The commission's Transit Committee endorsed the new fee in the package of proposals that included the increases in transit fares and the gasoline tax. However, the Metromover fee was not among the measures sent to the full commission for consideration.
But Ms. Llort said the 25-cent Metromover fee will receive consideration, since proposing it was among the obligations handed staff in carrying out the Transit Committee's order to present all options for raising transit revenues.
The Metromover fee wouldn't net much, Ms. Llort said, and explained the transit agency will have to determine whether the costs of collecting it make it worth bringing back.