Only an independent trust can get county's transit on track
Miami-Dade commissioners have put their own reelections ahead of hard decisions on the future of mass transit.
They've shelved thorny fare and fee increases to balance the transit budget until they're safely past election challenges.
Moreover, only after commissioners have decided how to spend transit taxes will they vote on whether to release power over the tax funds to the trust that was supposed to control the spending in the first place.
Here's their tighter-than-tight schedule:
— Get reelected Aug. 26.
— Vote Sept. 2 on how to beat a forecast $9.4 billion 30-year transit shortfall.
— Apply to Washington Sept. 5 for funds to expand Metrorail based on that $9.4 billion plan.
— And then in October, once all the big plans are engraved in stone, decide whether to give the Citizens Independent Transportation Trust the spending control that voters were promised when they passed a half percent transit tax on sales back in 2002.
While commissioners are years late in considering what the county promised voters, they wouldn't have reached that point even now if blame for massive transit spending errors wasn't falling on their heads.
As things stand, commissioners are jockeying to make the transportation trust the fall guy but still hang onto final control of transit taxes that were supposed to be safely out of their reach.
Some commissioners are saying that a fiduciary role would be too burdensome on the trust so keep the real power with the commission while pretending to hand it over. Before, they'd claimed that only elected officials should make real decisions — and that's what tossed them into the quagmire that's dragging them down today.
The real trick from the commission perspective will be how to shift blame to the trust for fare hikes that seem inevitable.
Increases loom just as the transit system is building steam by adding riders finally driven out of autos by higher gas prices that, despite fluctuations, will linger.
Meanwhile, residents who lack autos and are forced by high housing prices to travel farther and farther to lower-end jobs are also using transit.
Thus the dilemma: rising energy costs are making mass transit more successful just as they make it harder to finance.
Don't blame our county government for all these problems, because Miami isn't alone being squeezed in that vice: many cities are caught. New York City, which raised fares in March, is already facing a new increase next year and another in 2011 — and New York is just trying to maintain a system, not add miles of rail service.
But other counties didn't add a new tax for expansion six years ago, then quietly funnel most of the money away from expansion and into old services that we were told would be funded elsewhere. It was classic bait and switch.
Nor did other counties promise that a massive transit expansion would come from a tax that was never, on its first day, sufficient for the job, a case of overpromise and under deliver. Nor did they hogtie a supposedly independent trust so that commissioners could end run spending controls.
As the transit hole got deeper and deeper, commissioners last month finally gave the trust the basic rights to hire its own director and to get expert advisers without first getting commission approval. Incredibly, up to then a nominally independent trust had been unable to do either.
The next real step — once past those vital commission reelections, decisions on the total structure of transit funding for the next 30 years and an application for federal aid to extend Metrorail — would be for the commission to finally do what voters were promised and give an independent trust independence in control of transit tax funds.
That would be well after the iron horse was far out of the car barn, of course, but it might offer taxpayers a smidgeon of hope that the next time the county seeks a new tax, a bit of the promise to voters might be kept.
It also might provide oversight over spending of the next $9.4 billion of transportation funding. While the trust is only to control the half percent tax income, real stewardship would dig deeply into county transit plans and spending.
Over county stonewalling, the trust had long sought projections of transit revenues and expenditures. We only learned about the $9.4 billion shortfall, incredibly, when the county finally unsealed those projected figures.
If the recalcitrant commission does the right thing and yields the powers it snatched from the transit trust at birth, citizens will finally get what they not only were promised but vitally need: a transit watchdog with at least a few teeth.
Can anyone doubt, today, that this county desperately needs one?