Citizens' Independent Transportation Trust resists transit unification, proposes partial unification as compromise
By Risa Polansky
A move to mingle Miami-Dade transportation surtax revenues with general transit dollars is meeting resistance at the county's Citizens' Independent Transportation Trust, where some members insist the county must find a way to keep its promise to use the surtax to provide new transit service.
Voters in 2002 agreed to pay a half-percent sales tax in exchange for new projects.
Merging the tax revenue — or, "unifying" the transit system, as officials call it — would allow the money to be used also to maintain existing service.
Trust members say they may be amenable to helping out the financially ailing system with a portion of the tax revenue, but some insist they can't let go of the whole pot.
"To me, it's just a breach of trust with the voters, and I don't think we'd ever recover from it," trust member Paul Schwiep said at a workshop last week.
Already, some revenue from the half-percent transportation surtax has been put toward existing transit service and even a loan to the county's transit department.
A pro-forma released during the summer revealed that the department would face a multi-billion-dollar deficit over the next 30 years in trying to deliver planned new projects while maintaining the existing system.
The transportation trust, charged with overseeing and reviewing transit projects tied to the half-percent surtax, held a workshop last week to hash out the unification concept, which county administrators support.
Wrestling to find a balance between helping the transit system stay on track and keeping the county's promise to voters, some suggested dedicating a portion of the annual tax revenue to bus service and leaving the rest for new projects.
Another idea on the table: setting aside an annual percentage toward capital projects and mingling the rest.
"If you don't determine a minimum amount [of tax revenue that must be spent on new projects], then my fear is that minimum amount would be zero," said past trust chair Miles Moss.
Marc Buoniconti, another past chairman, also said he would not support full unification. He pressed to devote an annual percentage to new capital projects.
County staffers said that system could prove complicated when it came to debt service payments and inflation.
County Manager George Burgess has for years pushed to unify the whole system.
"The surtax must be treated as an additional revenue source among the many that support our unified transit system, and we cannot have the mindset that there are two public transit systems — one that existed before the referendum and another comprised of all new and improved service occurring after the referendum," he wrote in an August memorandum to commissioners.
But opening the door to potentially using all of the taxes collected to buoy the existing system is likely to anger voters, trust member Mr. Schwiep said at last week's workshop.
"People are going to come screaming that it was a big bait and switch," he said, and they will consider the trust "complicit in it."
He insisted there must be a way to improve transit without scrapping the original, voter-approved plan.
"I haven't heard why the bifurcated system is fundamentally flawed and unworkable," he said.
County officials — including administrators, commissioners and transportation trust members — are to address transit woes and potential solutions, including unification, at a workshop Nov. 15.