State transportation cuts may slow job recovery and infrastructure projects in Miami-Dade County
By Jacquelyn Weiner
With budget cuts imminent in Tallahassee this legislative session, Miami-Dade's business community is pushing legislators to spare transportation.
The Florida House is proposing that more than $400 million in State Transportation Trust Fund dollars be transferred elsewhere to balance the budget.
The fund is fueled by 12-cent-a-gallon gas taxes.
Yet with the job creation afforded by infrastructure development, cutting transportation funds is the wrong way to go, said Humberto Alonso Jr., chair of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce's Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
"They are very, very efficient employment-makers," Mr. Alonso said of transportation projects. "If you really want to accelerate job creation, you want to fund your infrastructure work."
Cutting transportation funds could jeopardize initiatives like construction of the Northwest 25th Street viaduct, he said, geared to provide better freight and air cargo access to Miami International Airport.
"It's really going to have a very negative impact on the State of Florida's transportation project program," Mr. Alonso said. "Everything will get delayed, if not completely stopped."
Gus Pego, head of the local Florida Department of Transportation district, said it's too early to say what projects cuts in the area's fund allotment would affect.
Yet with the state's projected $3 billion shortfall going into next fiscal year, he said, "the question is not if the Transportation Trust Fund is going to be raided, it's to what extent."
"All your income has to meet all your needs," Mr. Pego said. "So if your income is less, you have to reduce the programs that you deliver."
Local projects that would probably be affected first would be the most recent, he said.
"Certainly it impacts us because at any one point in time in our checking account, we have less money than the actual contracts that we are writing," he said.
"What generally happens is… [the] last projects might be the first to come out," Mr. Pego said.
Yet not all projects are equal, Mr. Pego said, as the Department of Transportation operates under a hierarchy, giving highest priority to safety of the highway system.
Second is preservation of existing infrastructure, he said, and third is adding "capacity to the system to address congestion."
The state's reliance on tapping transportation funds to fill other holes isn't new, Mr. Alonso said.
"In 2003, $200 million in transportation dollars were diverted from the State Transportation Trust Fund," according to the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce's 2010 State Legislative Package.
Subsequent efforts in 2004 and 2007 were defeated, according to the package.
And "In 2008, $330 million in State Transportation Trust Funds were diverted away from transportation projects."
This legislative session, a major chamber goal is to "preserve the funds that are currently in place and oppose the diversion of funds that would go to projects other than transportation," according to the legislative package.
"We should safeguard the trust fund," Mr. Alonso said. "And then we should also request commitment on long-term projects."
In addition to pushing for funding for the second phase of the Northwest 25th Street viaduct — a cost of $106.2 million — completing construction west from State Road 826 to Northwest 82nd Avenue, securing funds for high-speed rail from Miami to Orlando remains a central initiative.
Once the Tampa-Orlando high-speed rail leg is complete, Mr. Alonso said, it's important that the Miami-Orlando side be ready to go.
A consultant has been chosen to look into planning, designing and engineering of the South Florida-Central Florida segment, he said, but funding is needed to move forward.
"We need to be ready as soon as that's completed to move into construction," Mr. Alonso said. "The only way it [Florida high-speed rail] makes sense is to include Miami. You have to have that component or else it doesn't work."
Also being watched in the legislature: a senate bill that would require toll agencies to notify apparent violators by certified mail with a return receipt, said Javier Rodriguez, executive director of the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority.
Currently, violators are notified by first-class mail.
Under the bill, "receipt of the citation rather than its mailing constitutes notification."
This would raise the authority's per-violation-notice postage costs about $3.90 from its current rate of about 38 cents.
And while the Expressway Authority is funded solely through tolls, Mr. Rodriguez said that "as an advocate for infrastructure," he is "very concerned" about potential cuts to the State Transportation Trust Fund.
"There's projects that have been in the books for years that are absolutely necessary for the community that wouldn't be able to be constructed," Mr. Rodriguez said.
The good news: the Expressway Authority would be willing to pick up the tab on certain projects left underfunded by cuts to the state fund, he said, so long as they benefit one of the five Miami-Dade County expressways under its charge.
Such instances would be evaluated case by case, Mr. Rodriguez said:
"If there's an opportunity, we will step in and see what we can do."