Transit agency seeks new fees, fare increases for fiscal recovery
By Lou Ortiz
Free rides would end on the downtown Metromover and other transit riders would pay higher fares under an array of options Miami-Dade County is considering, including a 2 cents a gallon gasoline tax.
Free rides on the Metromover are funded by the half-cent transportation sales tax that county voters approved in a referendum in 2002 as part of the People's Transportation Plan.
But charging 25 cents a ride on Metromover is one of many revenue-generating options the county will consider to help shore up the Miami-Dade Transit Agency, which is $9.2 million in the red with its annual operating budget and is beset by rising oil, fuel, labor and maintenance costs.
The proposals include slashing some bus routes with low ridership.
"None of these things are very palatable," Commissioner Katy Sorenson told members of the county's Transit Committee on April 16.
She suggested reinstituting fares on Metromover "instead of being free," she said.
"This is something none of us want to do," Ms. Sorenson said. "But we're going to have to do something."
Other proposals include increasing fares on rail and bus routes by 50 cents to $2, imposing peak and distance fares on the transit lines, and charging Patriot pass users who now ride free 25 cents.
"We can look at the full range of options," Ms. Sorenson said. "And we can pick and choose."
The extra revenue is also needed as the system looks to expand Metrorail, which includes the North Corridor link to the Broward County line and the east-west expansion.
The options being considered, which would require approval of the full county commission, would provide a steady revenue stream for the agency.
Any options chosen could include small automatic fare increases of 5 cents to 15 cents in the coming years.
Transit Director Harpal S. Kapoor told committee members that the cost for oil and fuel has increased and the agency uses 40,000 gallons of fuel each day.
"Every transit agency in the country is going through the same crisis," he said. "All these prices have gone up."
Mr. Kapoor added that increasing fares 50 cents would generate $18 million to $19 million in annual revenue. The agency's last fare increase was 25 cents about 15 years ago.
Mr. Kapoor said other options could tie future fare increases to the Consumer Price Index or increases in yearly costs of operating and maintaining the system.
Commissioner Sally A. Heyman called the transit agency "a donor service with a deficit budget. We need to think of all options."
For example, she said, "What we offer for free now veterans could pay 25 cents," referring to the Freedom pass.
"We need the 50-cent increase," Commissioner Barbara Jordan said about the urgency for an across-the-board fare hike.
Once that increase is in effect "the main thing is to have regular increases," she said. "If we're going to bring transit around, we're going to have to make some hard decisions."
Assistant County Manager Ysela Llort told the committee the administration would put together a detailed five-year plan, spelling out each option and the revenues they would generate.
"Then you'll have a menu of options," Ms. Llort said. "At the end of the day, it will require a lot of options."
On April 14, The Citizens Independent Transportation Trust voted to allow the county commission to amend the trust ordinance to use the transportation tax to purchase 198 railcars for Metrorail, at a cost of $401 million.
The trust had initially rejected using the tax funds, which were not intended to be used for existing services.
Trust Chairman Myles Moss has said the panel faced the prospect of the federal government not funding the Orange Line extension if the county couldn't maintain the existing Metrorail line.
He said using the funds to buy the railcars would leave less money for other projects.
According to the county budget, more than $157 million from the transportation tax goes to the transit agency annually to support new services begun with the levy such as the Metromover.
Charging Metromover riders to use the system would be counter to the transportation plan, if ultimately approved by the county commission.
Committee Chairman Dorrin D. Rolle said he would convene a special committee workshop in the next few weeks to consider all the options and invite the full 13-member county commission to participate.
"If we invite the full board to the workshop," he said, "we can hammer it out there."
The transit agency runs 103 bus routes with 790 buses and 206 mini-buses, including 24-hour service along 22.4 miles of tracks on the Metrorail system, and the Metromover with 21 stations.
The transit agency, with a 2007-08 budget of $398.5 million, is the 16th largest in the US, with 354,000 daily passengers.
Much of the agency's budget is subsidized by the county, the transportation tax, state and federal grants, among other things. Fares and fees generate more than $90 million annually, according to the county budget.