Money Upkeep Politics Impeding Transportation Solutions
Written by Michael Lewis on June 20, 2013
By Michael Lewis
A week after a transportation summit’s gauging of mobility or immobility revealed that the green fuel of public transport-ation’s future is money, a county Finance Committee detoured down the same road and met the same roadblock.
That’s hardly surprising. All the creative thinking in the world must end up with a wallet-sized solution: if we don’t have it, we can’t spend it.
And while the craze is public-private partnerships to build us things the public needs but can’t afford, there is no free lunch — or free freeway, or free rail line, or free whatever.
Maybe it was because it was in the Finance Committee that the bottom line was made crystal clear.
Everyone is talking about salvation via public-private partnerships, said Commissioner Dennis Moss. "At the end of the day it’s about funding" but "at the end of the day folks involved in the public-private partnerships expect to get paid."
And that means that no matter how creative the deal, at some point the public purse is going to be tapped.
It’s like American Airline Arena. Because the public didn’t want to build an arena for the Miami Heat, team owner Micky Arison agreed to build it himself, albeit on public land. But the public still pays: we give him almost $7 million a year in the deal, and now he wants to raise it to as much as $17 million.
It’s not about winning games or about LeBron. "At the end of the day it’s about funding" and the private sector expects to get paid.
It’s not that there is no money for transportation. There is — just far too little.
And when it comes to prioritizing which transit corridor gets built or enlarged or speeded-up with limited funds for seemingly unlimited needs, it’s suddenly not all about money or the biggest bang for the buck or efficient use of limited dollars — it’s all about politics.
Where the rubber meets the road, the decision on future transit is going to come down to who carries the most political weight. That’s not just Miami: it’s true everywhere.
So the decision on tackling the next piece of our transit puzzle is going to come down to where to get the money and who has the power to commandeer it.
It’s a tough climate in which to act. As Finance Committee members noted, the public has been overpromised and under-delivered to death on transportation.
When the present half-percent sales tax for transportation was passed, said Commissioner Esteban Bovo Jr., promises of new routes weren’t — and couldn’t have been — fulfilled.
We were sold the dream of Metrorail to Florida International University in West Dade, he said. But it’s not there — and neither is a coherent system.
"It doesn’t pick me up where I want to be picked up and it doesn’t drop me off where I want to be dropped," he said, echoing a general complaint about the system. "We’ve got to do what we say we’re going to do. That’s the part that has everybody frustrated."
There’s a lot that’s frustrating in this: you can’t get there from here, we’ve been lied to about what we were going to build, we don’t have enough money, problems are getting worse as population and density increase, and any solution will boil down not to what makes the most sense on paper but to who has the most political clout.
So, is the real solution more money? Mr. Moss talked about California cities that have a 1.5% or 1.75% sales tax for transportation while ours is only a half percent. Is the next push going to be for a bigger sales tax?
Federal funding for transportation, he noted, is unlikely unless we not only fund part of construction but also have a sure means of raising enough money to operate and maintain whatever we build. And that’s just not Miami’s way.
We are great at building things, the more grandiose the better. But we seldom have enough cash to operate and maintain them right after the big upfront expense.
That’s why we’re buying Metrorail cars to replace every one we have now. We saved on costs by not maintaining our current cars until they’re nearly worthless. The new ones start arriving in 2015 and the old ones become scrap metal.
As for operating what we buy: Miami ripped the mechanism out of its costly Pepper Fountain in Bayfront Park, which was built to exhibit complex water spray shows, because the city couldn’t pay for the water or electricity to run it. The former fountain now is bone dry. That’s Miami’s way.
None of this means that transportation ideas rolled out of a summit are headed to the end of the line like the Metrorail cars. Vital plans could well get on track.
It only means that a few big barriers — not just funding but also political battles and foresight to maintain whatever we do over a long period — need to be cleared in the process.