These difficult financial and ecological times require creative new sources of federal funding for mass transit
By Kirk Nielsen
Certain Republican lawmakers are always saying we can’t afford this or that government program, like federal health insurance or President Obama’s stimulus plan. Then they’ll turn around and send hundreds of millions of federal taxpayer dollars to companies like Carlyle Group or Hewlett-Packard–or to the transportation contractors who build our roads and railways. For example, U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart notes on his website, www.mariodiazbalart.org, that he has “secured authorization of more than $2.2 billion for all Miami-Dade transit corridors including the new North and East-West Metrorail lines.”
Good for him. Like most public servants, he must know that mass transit is one of those areas in which smart nations and communities pool their tax dollars for the benefit of everyone. There’s just one problem. There won’t be any new North and East-West Metrorail lines.
Of course it’s not entirely the Congressman’s fault. In 2002 Miami-Dade voters approved a half-cent People’s Transportation Plan sales tax specifically to fund about 60 miles of new Metrorail lines and other projects. Erstwhile County Transit Director Danny Alvarez, and the ballot language itself, indicated that a majority of the revenue would be allocated for Metrorail expansion. But county commissioners proceeded to spend most of the PTP revenue on roadways, bus service, and operation of the solitary Metrorail line we already had. Last year County Manager George Burgess confessed that it was bunk to think the PTP tax could have ever funded the expanded rail system voters authorized in 2002—even with federal contributions like the ones Mr. Diaz-Balart secured.
So, we’re left with just 2.4 miles of new Metrorail that is to link the current line to Miami International Airport starting in 2012. The estimated cost is $526 million—$426 million from the PTP tax and $100 million from Florida Department of Transportation. The project will consume none of the $2.2 billion the Congressman secured; Burgess opted to forgo federal money because the federal appropriations process takes too long.
Nor is it entirely Diaz-Balart’s fault that the $2.2 billion he secured would have covered only a fraction of the $14 billion or so that 60 more miles of Metrorail track would cost at today’s prices. Congress just wasn’t willing to authorize anything close to what we need.
But the truth is that Miami-Dade desperately needs an expanded rail system. One trip across the county during rush hour painfully drives home the fact that we have a worsening transit crisis. If Rep. Diaz-Balart wants credit for helping to alleviate it, shouldn’t he need to secure enough money to do so? That is, much, much more than $2.2 billion.
Everyone knows these fiscally-troubled times require Congress to prioritize and shift funds into programs that are vital for our economic and environmental health (like mass transit) and out of federal projects that aren’t. Unfortunately, one of the Congressman’s own expensive pet federal projects, Radio & TV Martí—which cost federal taxpayers about $35 million per year—falls into the latter category. Diaz-Balart, Miami-Dade’s only voice on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has spent a lot of his political capital lately repeatedly denouncing the president’s stimulus plan as “nothing more than a dismal failure” and “a colossal waste of taxpayer money.” Many fiscal conservatives would apply those terms to Radio & TV Martí.
So, here’s an idea I’ve already shared with the local Metropolitan Planning Organization. The MPO recently announced a “call for ideas” on how to reduce traffic congestion and mailed out a form on which to put your idea’s title, objective, and tasks necessary to execute it.
[Title] Metrorail Martí.
[Objective] Closure of Radio & TV Martí, resulting in direction of $350 million into urban rail construction in Miami-Dade County over the next decade.
[Tasks] Develop strategies to 1) persuade Congress and Florida Legislature to match those dollars, for a total of $1 billion in new funding for urban rail expansion in Miami-Dade; 2) press Obama Administration to devote several billion dollars in future stimulus spending to Metrorail Martí.