After long road to transit tax, supporter cites challenge to win public's trust
By Catherine Lackner
Last November's passage of the half-penny sales tax for public transportation was "one of the most dramatic events in recent history," but there's no time for proponents to rest on their laurels, says Allen C. Harper, long-time transportation activist and chairman of the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority.
The tax, which will fund improvements to Metrorail, Metromover, the county bus system and other entities, "will have more impact on our future and our children's future than anything we've ever done," said Mr. Harper, who is chairman of Esslinger Wooten Maxwell Realtors and incoming chair-elect of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce. He spent 25 years in the chamber working on getting a dedicated source of funding for transportation and for years was the most visible proponent of transportation funding in Miami-Dade County.
"Any great city has a strong transportation system," Mr. Harper said. "We had a collapsing infrastructure and we experienced such rapid growth that the system was totally unable to handle the movement of people. We were in virtual decline."
The challenge now, he said, is to maintain the public trust and wisely go about building up the system.
"It takes awhile to put this in place and we have to be willing to invest the time and mental effort to make sure it's done properly," he said.
"That means our oversight committee has to reflect a broad spectrum of people from this community," Mr. Harper said.
The board is being put together now. Each county commissioner is expected to place several names in nomination, which will then be approved by the full board, "so it takes about 60 nominations to come up with final governing board," Mr. Harper said.
The oversight board was one of the most appealing components of last November's campaign for the tax and "we have to make sure we have the trust of the people and understand the will of the people," Mr. Harper said.
Putting together the board "is a long complicated process and we're trying to keep it non-political. Hopefully within 60 days we can get this in place - and then the work really starts."
Some innovations, like the waiving of fares for senior citizens, have already gone into effect, "but the real long- term priority is the selection of joint venture partners so we can go after state and federal dollars to put transportation into place.
"We can't depend on road construction to solve our traffic problems. We will double the bus fleet, but that's just a quick fix. We need light rail, heavy rail, other types of mass transit. Putting more buses on a overcrowded roads isn't going to help much."
Other issues important to a workable transportation system include creating an independent authority for Miami International Airport and promoting regionalism throughout the tri-county area, he said.
"Everybody has a vision of how to improve the airport," he said. "But I think an independent authority is absolutely necessary. There needs to be guidance and so forth by elected office, but it needs to be run in a more businesslike way and less dependent on the political winds that seem to blow. There need to be policies there that transcend election dates."
Concerning regionalism, "we can't have invisible barriers that prevent the smooth, even flow of people, goods and ancillary services between the three counties," Mr. Harper said.
Everyone wants a regional business alliance and a regional transportation plan, he said, "but the question is, how do you fund it?"
He advocates a $2 Florida license tag surcharge. "It takes no funds from any program that's existing now and most people couldn't tell you what they pay for their tag, anyway."
With the money generated, "we could create so much leverage," he said, because most large funding programs, including federal funding programs, require local matching funds.
The battle is psychological as well as financial, he said. "So often we look at competing with each other but that really isn't the case. We should be working together to market South Florida."
The 88,000 people who commute into Miami-Dade County every weekday from Broward and Palm Beach counties "are a huge factor in this region and prove no county's economy stands alone."
Here in Miami, he said, finding a workable transportation plan is crucial because "it gives us the ability to be a true international city with the kinds of mass transportation that reach all segments of society. Mobility is a critical element in any city's future."