Selling voters on a sales tax for transportation was easy. The hard part is spending the money.
By any measure, traffic in Miami-Dade is bad and getting worse. Last fall, the Miami metropolitan area climbed a notch to ninth in the Texas Transportation Institute's annual ranking of most congested cities in the U.S.
That distinction is not what voters had in mind in 2002 when they voted nearly 2 to 1 for a half-cent sales tax to fund upgrades to the county's transportation system. Among the promises: A fleet of new buses, new bus routes and seed money for such big-ticket projects as a trolley system along the Biscayne Boulevard corridor and the Bay Link light rail line connecting downtown to Miami Beach. The tax also would serve as local matching funds for the expansion of the elevated Metrorail commuter line.
But putting the estimated $150 million in annual tax proceeds to good use has not been easy. Earlier this year, the county commission shocked many residents by narrowly approving a plan to use the tax revenue to pay off old transit department debts and to offset anticipated operating shortfalls. Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez vetoed the spending plan, arguing that voters had been promised that the funds would only be used for new projects. In response, commissioners are poised to raise fares from $1.25 to $1.50 -- a move that some experts say will reduce ridership, at least in the short term.
Meanwhile, now that the county has its own dedicated funding source for transportation, officials are asking Congress to fund a chunk of the planned $2.2-billion extension to Metrorail. That request is complicated somewhat by local squabbling over which extension to build first -- a spur connecting downtown Miami to the older, poorer communities to the north or a western one to the fast-growing, middle-class suburban areas. Funding for the entire expansion plan is unlikely, county officials say.
Many residents also are disillusioned by the ineffectiveness of the Citizens' Independent Transportation Trust, a public watchdog group formed to oversee spending of the sales tax proceeds. The trust has struggled to attract qualified applicants willing to serve and, more troubling, says Alvarez, has failed to gain wide support for its mandate from the county commission.
Will the billions in tax revenue expected over the life of the county's 30-year transportation spending plan ease congestion on Miami-Dade's roads and highways? Alvarez says progress will be made, but perhaps not as rapidly as voters were lead to belief. "I'm not saying people were lied to, but there was an awful lot not fully explained," says Alvarez. "Voters were given the impression that if the tax was approved, we'd be able to pay for all these new projects. We're finding out that it's not quite that simple."