South Florida seeks more funds from federal transit package
By Shannon Pettypiece
Packing a new arsenal that includes a regional transportation authority and a Miami-Dade County tax earmarked for transit, South Florida officials are fighting for more federal funds.
Under a $375 billion bill introduced in the US House last week, Florida is set to double its mass-transit financing for a total of $2 billion with an additional $11 billion for highways. The bill could create up to 118,000 jobs in Florida each year for the next six years.
The bill would build off the current Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century, which expires Feb. 29 and will set the level of federal funding for the next six years.
With a new Regional Transportation Authority in place, South Florida is the fifth-largest area in the US, making it a fierce competitor against New York and Los Angeles. Lawmakers will see Miami-Dade's half-penny tax as a sign that the region is serious about transportation, officials said.
The newly formed South Florida Regional Transportation Authority wants $75 million a year during the next six years from the federal government's $21 billion in discretionary funds that are set aside for specific projects nationwide.
"We need to make sure we get our fair share on the discretionary side that usually goes to the other areas," said Michael Williams, director of planning and capital development for the Regional Transportation Authority.
South Florida now has an advantage over many regions because of a new federal classification as one tri-county area, said local and federal officials.
"They've got more power and strength as a unit," said Mary Trupo of Washington-based American Public Transportation Association. "It gives them a real advantage."
South Florida's mass-transit aspirations will be in the balance during the next few months as officials await word on federal appropriations for the next six years.
The current federal transportation-financing bill expires at the end of February, and federal lawmakers must vote on new legislation to determine the level of transportation funds, how they will be appropriated and from where the money will come.
A new $375 billion bill introduced in the Congressional House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure last week would give $2 billion to Florida over the next six years, twice as much as under the current bill, and $11 billion for highways.
The bill also includes $21 billion in general funds for specific projects, of which South Florida hopes to get $75 million a year for the next six years.
Only six states would get more than Florida in transit dollars, and only three would receive more highway funds under the bill.
Another bill proposed by the White House would provide $23.5 billion less for mass-transit nationwide and a half-billion dollars less for Florida than the congressional bill.
Some projects local officials would like to finance with additional transit funds include:
NAn east-west Tri-Rail extension parallel to State Route 836 and Interstate 595.
NAdditional public transportation on the Florida East Coast Railway tracks that run through downtown Miami.
NExtension of Tri-Rail service north to Jupiter.
NA Metrorail connection to a proposed transportation hub by Miami International Airport.
NA light-rail connector between Miami Beach and downtown Miami.
One major question that must be resolved is how federal money would be allocated. The current bill gives money directly to the states' departments of transportation, but there is a push to give funds directly to county planners or cities, said spokeswoman Mary Trupo of the American Public Transportation Association.
"One plan is to have more go directly to the (metropolitan planning organizations)," Ms. Trupo said. "Some folks are pushing for it to go to the cities."
Jose-Luis Mesa, director of Miami-Dade County's Metropolitan Planning Organization, said he is aware of the local funding push and feels the congressional bill was much geared toward the local level.
"I've never seen the word 'local' so many times in a transportation bill," Mr. Mesa said.
The new bill has a greater emphasis on mass transit than its predecessor. Mass transit funding would double in Florida and nationally.
In addition to resolving how the money will be doled out, the lingering question in Washington is where the money will come from, said Ms. Trupo.
"What is not out there is how do we pay for thi,s and that is where the debate on Capitol Hill is," she said.
One plan put on the table by US Rep. Tom Petri of Wisconsin, vice chairman of the House transportation committee, would increase the gasoline tax from 18.5 cents a gallon to 23.5 cents a gallon. But the Bush administration is opposed to "anything that looks or smells like a tax increase," said Ms. Trupo.
Another plan would channel the current gas tax directly to the transportation fund and away from general coffers.
Until the House Appropriations Committee reaches a decision on how a new transportation bill would be funded, the transportation committee will have to wait to move a bill to the floor, she said.
While federal lawmakers battle over the details of the new transportation bill, local lawmakers and officials are prodding South Florida delegates to make sure the region gets its fair share.
Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas is aggressively pushing the Miami-Dade legislative delegation to fight for the county's funds, said mayoral spokeswoman Lynn Norman-Teck, and the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority is encouraging citizens and community leaders to write letters and call their congressmen on the issue.
"We are not going to be able to do it as transportation professionals," said Michael Williams of the Regional Transportation Authority. "We have to get the community at large engaged."