Miami-Dade County faces cuts in road funds from slump in federal dollars
By Frank Norton
Lacking additional funds, Miami-Dade County may need to cut $40 million a year from its transportation budget starting in 2008, jeopardizing the future of many large-scale projects in a 20-year, $15 billion plan.
The news came in Friday's report to county planners by Florida Department of Transportation District 6 Secretary Jose Abreu and Miami-Dade Transit Authority Director Danny Alvarez. The underlying problem, they said, is a projected shortfall in federal fuel tax collections caused by the downturn in the US economy.
"We have some major revisions in the projection of federal funds that will adversely affect us," Mr. Abreu told members of the Metropolitan Planning Organization, the group that oversees the county's transportation program.
According to the report, while county bonds would mitigate transportation spending deficits during the next five years, long-term funding shortfalls, estimated at $40 million annually after 2008, will be nearly impossible to head off without drastic budgetary revisions.
The report cited a weakening demand for gas and diesel products nationwide cutting into federal fuel-tax collections, lowering allocations projected for mass transit and highway development.
"It affects everybody right down to the district level," Mr. Abreu said.
"There's no question there will be some projects reduced in scope, deferred to later years or not even done at all," Mr. Alvarez said. "The Metropolitan Planning Organization will have to reprioritize its project plans based on whatever the new levels of funding are going to be."
Mr. Abreu said local planners will be forced to rethink their approach to transportation and, indeed, all public works funding in light of tightening federal returns.
The county's 20-year transportation plan outlines more than 100 projects, including $5.8 billion in highway improvements, $3.4 billion in transit infrastructure and $5.9 billion in operations and maintenance costs.
Large-scale projects that could see delays include the planned light rail system linking downtown Miami to Miami Beach and a heavy rail connection between Earlington Heights Metrorail Station and a planned Miami Intermodal Center.
Miami-Dade Commissioner Katy Sorenson, a Metropolitan Planning Organization board member, called the projected shortfall a "serious problem" that significantly raises the stakes for passage of the county's proposed dedicated transportation fund. That proposal, on the November ballot, calls for a half-percent sales tax as a dedicated source of transportation funds for Miami-Dade. If the legislation fails to gain approval next month, the county's long-range plan could be cut back billions of dollars.
"Without that dedicated funding in place, we are in dire straits," Mr. Alvarez told Metropolitan Planning Organization board members. "I really can't overemphasize the need."
Board member and Commissioner Jimmy Morales asked what the county is doing to educate voters on the issue. Mr. Alvarez cited a grassroots campaign targeting civic groups and homeowners associations. To date, the county has no plans to launch a media campaign to win voter support for the tax hike.
As for future funding alternatives, Mr. Abreu and others - including Commissioner Sorenson - said local governments must aggressively form partnerships with private stakeholders on public works projects.
"People still think everything has to come from the Department of Transportation," she said. "But in the future it's not going to work that way."
Mr. Abreu said land acquisition is one area where private dollars could help kick-off major development projects since it would give private investors a chance to make money on property value increases driven by public works improvements.
"It's a self-fulfilling prophecy," he said.