Ambitious Transit Plans but Funding Remains Elusive

Funding could derail transit ideas

South Florida Business Journal

by Brian Bandell

There’s a growing movement to put mass transit on the FEC Railway corridor, but getting funding is questionable.
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The Florida Department of Transportation‘s mass-transit solutions to South Florida’s traffic nightmare will likely stall without local funding.

Broward County voters overwhelmingly rejected a 1 percent sales tax for transportation projects on Nov. 7, sending the message that they are more fed up with taxes than with traffic. Now, mass-transit advocates are trying to figure out what kind of funding would pass political muster.

 

At stake is ensuring a viable alternative to driving as South Florida adds a projected 2.5 million people by 2030 and the promotion of redevelopment. Many cities and developers view mass transit, particularly on the Florida East Coast (FEC) rail line, as the catalyst to revitalize downtown areas.

But the price tags are in the billions and local dollars are a must for the federal government to award funding, said Scott Seeburger, FDOT’s project manager for several mass-transit line studies in South Florida. He will continue working on the FEC study in all three counties and a proposal for east-west light rail down Interstate 595 in central Broward County. But if there are no local funding sources in the five to six years it will take to complete those studies, the projects won’t get built, he said.

The east-west line in Broward would cost at least $1.2 billion, he said. Local funds would have to cover at least half of it.

The dream of having passenger rail on the 85-mile stretch of the FEC from Miami to Jupiter has many political hurdles to overcome. All three counties would need to identify recurring sources of transportation funds to build the rail line, even if the state decided to purchase the FEC corridor, Seeburger said. The total cost would range from $7 billion to $10 billion. If only one county dedicates funds, the FEC passenger line would be built only in that county, he added.

Broward and Palm Beach counties don’t have a dedicated funding source for mass transit. Miami-Dade County has a half-penny sales tax for that purpose, but the funds will be exhausted by the next phase of Metrorail expansion, said Jose Luis Mesa, director of Miami’s Metropolitan Planning Organization.

Two legs will be added to Metrorail if the county’s tax is matched by federal dollars. A 10.1-mile extension would go from the Miami Intermodal Center (MIC) near Miami International Airport, west along State Road 836 to Florida International University. That would cost $2.3 billion, Mesa said. The MIC will be connected to Metrorail through a 2.4-mile extension from the Earlington Heights station that will be completed in 2012.

The north corridor would go from the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. station along Northwest 27th Avenue to the Broward County line. The 9.5-mile route would take it to Dolphin Stadium, Calder Race Course and Miami Dade College’s north campus. That would cost $1.5 billion and be done in 10 years, Mesa said.

Although there are ongoing studies on the FEC line and extending Metrorail in the southern part of the county, the half-penny sales tax won’t cover those projects, Mesa said.

“In the next 20 years, we’ll still be falling short of everything that needs to be done to maintain levels of mobility as acceptable,” he said.

With so much population growth expected, all of these transit improvements would be needed just to keep traffic congestion at its current level, he added.

Transit planning groups in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties were considering proposals for sales tax to cover transportation needs, but the measure’s failure in Broward County has discouraged them, said Richard Kaplan, chairman of the Broward Metropolitan Planning Organization and mayor of Lauderhill.

There aren’t many other options besides sales tax. The counties are using all 12 cents state law allows them to collect on the gas tax. Only a new state law and local approval could change that, Kaplan said. Florida’s legislature approved a $2-a-day rental car tax for transportation needs this year, but Gov. Jeb Bush vetoed it.

The FDOT region that runs from Broward through Indian River County has 19 percent of the state’s population, but gets only 14 percent of the transportation funding, Palm Beach County Commissioner and Treasure Coast Regional Planning Counsel Chairman Jeff Koons said. Florida is getting back 91 cents for every dollar its taxpayers contribute to transportation funding.

The counties should stop going it alone and approach Tallahassee as a group with a regional transportation funding plan through taxes, Koons said.

“If you spend time and educate the public about what they’ll get, you can change it,” he said. “In Broward County, we didn’t spend enough time educating people.”

E-mail staff writer Brian Bandell at bbandell@bizjournals.com.

http://southflorida.bizjournals.com/southflorida/stories/2006/11/27/story1.html?page=2&b=1164603600^1380137

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