Ask not for whom the port tolls: It tolls for thee, Harriet
By Michael Lewis
A pivotal policy question in the plan to dig a $1 billion Port of Miami truck tunnel is about to land on county commissioners' desks: Who should pay for this boon to shippers?
Unsurprisingly, as we reported last week, officials plan to levy tolls to help pay the county's $400 million share of the tunnel.
Call me na´ve, but what did surprise me is that they plan to charge every vehicle entering the port, both car and truck and via both tunnel and the current entrance.
A toll on a fast new entrance into the port seems fair. But a toll at the old slow entry, which is now free, is questionable.
And while truckers paying their projected $5 to $7 toll would actually be using the port at lower cost than today, saving valuable hours by avoiding the congestion that now clogs downtown, the $2 to $3 passenger-car toll would be new, levied to help cut costs of truckers.
That's not necessarily wrong. Still, it's worth debating whether hundreds of cars that drive into the seaport carrying people to work should now pay $10 or $15 weekly.
Who else would tolls hit?
Cruise passengers: More than 1.8 million of them departed via the port in 2005 and about the same number arrived. Most departing passengers reach the port by cab, limousine or bus, but they'd pay the toll as surely as if they were behind the wheel.
Folks attending meetings and events on the port and those doing business with port tenants or government would also pay tolls.
In none of these cases would the proposed $2 to $3 be a tipping point that would shrink business. It would just be an annoyance.
Certainly, after a $24 cab ride from the airport, a toll would mean little to a cruise passenger. But to a port worker who'd pay that toll daily, it would be more than an annoyance. A reduced monthly rate for workers seems called for.
As commissioners weigh proposals to finance a tunnel, they'd do well to peer into all ramifications. This small one is a question of equity. While tolls aren't likely to diminish port business, they do affect those who would pay them.
Is the mix of payments correct? Should trucks piled with high-pay cargo using a port tunnel built just for them for $1 billion or more — and it will be more — pay only twice what you'd pay to drop Aunt Harriet off for her cruise?
Certainly, that cargo is vital to this county's economy. But so is Aunt Harriet's cruise.
A Washington Economic Group study last fall found that port operations had a $12.2 billion economic output in Miami-Dade in 2005, were responsible for $5.4 billion in personal income and provided directly and indirectly 81,800 jobs. The study didn't say what share of those figures was due to cargo and what was related to cruising Aunt Harriets and Uncle Harrys.
Harry and Harriet would reach their ship faster if a tunnel siphoned cargo trucks off downtown Miami streets, so they'd benefit. But truckers would be the big winners. Who should pay what and why, and what would happen as a result?
Whether this microcosmic question would have long-range impact requires careful study before the commission acts in June.
It's the same type of question we've been raising about proposals to cut state property taxes: What's the equity, and what's the potential long-range impact?
A substantial piece of the tunnel's financing is likely to come from bonds based on long-term port toll collections — even, apparently, if those tolls don't come from the tunnel itself.
As with the Legislature and taxes, let's hope the county commission examines the implications of a toll structure before a bond issue makes the structure immutable.