Panel would re-try penny sales tax to ease roads ahead
By Catherine Lackner
South Florida's clogged roadways will continue to frustrate drivers and slow the flow of trade until a unified tri-county transportation plan is developed and a funding source such as a sales tax increase is found for critical improvements.
That was the consensus Feb. 1 when experts met at Transportation Forum 2001, a panel focusing on transportation needs and opportunities sponsored by Miami Today, South Florida Commuter Services, South Florida Vanpool, Miami-Dade Expressway Authority and JM Family Enterprises.
The July 1999 defeat of a one-cent sales tax for public transportation "was a very sobering lesson," said Jose Luis Mesa, director of the Metropolitan Planning Organization, which oversees transportation planning for Miami-Dade County. "This was something we very much needed. We may do it again"
But if the sales tax is brought to the ballot again, it should be marketed better "so people can see the things that can be done," he said.
The defeat was widely attributed to a lack of voter confidence in local leadership.
"FDOT takes a neutral position," said Gary L Donn, director of the Florida Department of Transportation's District 6 office, "but there's clearly a need for it."
The tax money, he said, "would be a local match for federal dollars" that could energize diverse projects, from a proposed tunnel from the Port of Miami to Miami International Airport to new vehicles that would bolster the aging and ailing Metrobus fleet.
"We need it desperately," said Carlos Bonzon, deputy director for capital improvements at the Miami-Dade Aviation Department.
"Metrobus needs to increase its fleet size. Miami International Airport is the only major airport I know that is not served by mass transit," he said, causing headaches not only for employees but travelers who wish to connect with rail lines or take a bus to their destination.
"Quick ground transportation access is crucial," he said.
The planned Miami Intermodal Center, expansion of the Metrorail and Busway network and other transportation initiatives will help achieve the goal of "moving more people without so many vehicles," said David Burr, project director for South Florida Commuter Services. But, he said, public awareness of that seems to be absent.
The oft-discussed intermodal center would have room for rental car companies and a Metromover station to relieve some airport congestion, Mr. Bonzon said.
The center's construction east of LeJeune Road will be "a big challenge," said Servando Parapar, executive director of the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority. "The east-west corridor is the worst and you're talking about demolishing infrastructure there."
Meanwhile, traffic foul-ups are costing millions in trade dollars and luring business away from the Port of Miami, said Jorge Rovirosa, Florida Stevedoring Corp. executive vice president and director of the Port of Miami Terminal Operating Co.
Trucks used to be able to take seven to eight trips daily to Miami International, he said, but traffic congestion has decreased that to four a day.
"We're paying $270,000 per month in overtime to keep the terminals open," Mr. Rovirosa said.
Add the proposed baseball stadium and possible rerouting of Biscayne Boulevard, "and we're going to lose steamship lines," he said.
Many of the port's 45,000 jobs are held by minorities, he said. "Should we trade this for baseball, where some of the employees are millionaires and the others are peanut vendors? Without trade, how are we going to buy tickets?"
Though there's a three-year window of opportunity for Miami-Dade to pass the funding measure, according to Danny Alvarez, director of Miami-Dade Transit, panelists were skeptical that public opinion will change.
"This will happen when you can only move on the roads at 5 mph," said Mr. Bonzon, "which may be, I'm afraid, in the very near future."
Panelists also agreed that Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties should put aside their traditional rivalries and work out a regional transportation blueprint.
"We should get the three counties together and set an agenda," Mr. Bonzon said. "The counties should not be so territorial."
"It sounds good, but it's hard to do," Mr. Mesa said. "It's going to take awhile."