Miami will contribute $50 million to port tunnel, CFO insists
By Risa Polansky
Despite the uncertainty of some city commissioners and continued outright resistance from one, Miami administrators still plan to make the city's pledged $50 million contribution to Miami-Dade County's $1 billion port tunnel project using community redevelopment funds, said CFO Larry Spring.
"We're still moving forward with the same plan" for the city's share of the project designed to direct port-related traffic off of downtown streets, he said.
Mr. Spring said he and Jim Villacorta, executive director of the Southeast Overtown/Park West and Omni Community Redevelopment Agencies, have "continued to discuss" the funding plan with commissioners, who serve as the agency board, "in private venues" to "get a better sense of what the real reluctance was, to demonstrate how we can satisfy some of their issues."
All five commissioners say they have yet to be briefed on the plan, however.
They have not formally addressed tunnel funding as an agency since administrators announced the plan and haven't voted as a commission to dispense the money regardless of its source.
Commissioner Tomás Regalado said this comes as no surprise.
"That is the culture in the city at this time," he said. "They make deals without the consent of the people who vote, and they don't even have the decency of talking with you.
"That's not the way it's done in this country. This would not happen in Congress."
A resolution pledging the money from an unnamed source was removed from the commission agenda this month and deferred to July 10.
Mr. Regalado said he planned to make a motion denying the funds at a community redevelopment agency meeting this week, but it was cancelled due to lack of quorum.
He has been attempting since March to ban redevelopment dollars from city pet projects and has succeeded in rallying his colleagues to deny funds for a baseball stadium and streetcar project.
The tunnel has been an ongoing quest. He has said that agency funds should be used only for direct improvements to needy areas.
"I don't know what it is they don't understand — no. Maybe I need to say it in Mandarin or French," Mr. Regalado said.
Commission Chairman Angel Gonzalez' office reported he is "not predisposed to vote in favor" of using redevelopment dollars to fund the tunnel.
Commissioner Michelle-Spence Jones, chairwoman of the agency boards, said her district is her No. 1 concern.
"The city and the county are engaged in active negotiations over a number of issues regarding the CRA, principle of which is that the county must show a real commitment to support Overtown and its future growth," she said in an e-mail. "Everything else takes second place, including the port tunnel, so it would be a bit premature to talk about using CRA monies on anything other than helping the Overtown community advance its dreams."
Even after funding a tunnel, Mr. Spring said, the agency would have money to support other projects, which he hopes will quell the commissioners' doubts.
The Omni district garnered $11.5 million in tax increment revenue this year, according to Miguel Valentin, the agencies' financial officer. Mr. Spring's projections are based on tax revenues that could be generated by unbuilt city-approved projects in the area, he said.
If the agency were to provide funds next year to a port tunnel and the Carnival Center for the Performing Arts, another project in need of a boost, it would have more than $6 million to devote to other projects, Mr. Spring's forecast shows.
If developments are built as planned, generating more revenue for the district, it shows the $50 million in port tunnel funding being paid off by 2042, leaving almost $168.5 million to other projects and bonds that year.
Using redevelopment money to fund a tunnel, however, is not a possibility unless the county agrees to extend the Omni agency boundaries to encompass Watson Island, where the tunnel is to be built. Mr. Spring's projections include the expanded area.
It would also require a county-approved extension of the agency's lifespan.
Denying the county the money could jeopardize both, some say.
"The county is the 800-pound gorilla — we are negotiating with the 800-pound gorilla," said Commissioner Joe Sanchez. "There's a lot of things tied up here. We should have all our options open, period."
Commissioner Marc Sarnoff said the same at a March meeting.
But the agency should call the county's bluff and challenge it to responsibly do what's best for the people, Mr. Regalado responded. "For the county to come and bully the City of Miami or the CRA is wrong."
Mr. Sarnoff, who supports a tunnel project that could ease traffic in the Omni area, said he is on the fence about how to fund one.
While he'd rather see the city use streets bond money for the contribution instead of redevelopment dollars, he said, "I don't know that I'm totally against it."
Mr. Regalado said the city has no business supporting the tunnel. "My major concern is the city is putting in a lot of money and yet we don't seem to own anything, not even a share of the tolls," he said — "nothing."
If his colleagues decide to support funding for a tunnel, Mr. Regalado said, he plans to urge them to seek some of the proceeds.