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As Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart tells it, he watches from the chairman’s perch of a powerful transportation committee just waiting to use his authority to steer billions of dollars in federal transit aid to his home county of Miami-Dade. The wait continues.
“C’mon man,” Diaz-Balart said. “Use me.”
His comments to the Miami Herald Editorial Board this week capture one of the biggest divides in Miami-Dade’s ongoing debate about whether to pursue an expensive rail expansion or make do with some sort of modernized bus system.
Advocates of rail say county leaders’ unwillingness to pick a single rail corridor to be built first has left Miami-Dade paralyzed. An ongoing study of six potential rail lines, they say, leaves Miami-Dade unable to start the lengthy federal application process that could eventually let Diaz-Balart, a Miami Republican, use his influence as chairman of the appropriations subcommittee for transportation to advance a hometown project to the top of the funding list.
Skeptics see the years required for federal approval as a delay that residents won’t tolerate as traffic worsens. Now, Mayor Carlos Gimenez has joined their ranks. A recent memo from the mayor and his financial team outlines a more daunting objection: Even if Washington came through with billions to build new rail lines for Miami-Dade, the county doesn’t have the millions needed to operate it.
Last month, Gimenez issued his administration’s first recommendation for implementing the 2016 SMART Plan, which launched about $50 million worth of consultant studies for six commuting corridors in Miami-Dade. To extend Metrorail at street level on just two of them — north of Miami to the Broward County line and south to Florida City — would cost an extra $33 million a year to operate, according to the mayor’s memo.
That amounts to a 30 percent increase in Metrorail’s existing $75 million budget, and Miami-Dade can’t even afford that. Gimenez’s proposed 2018 budget cuts Metrorail to $70 million by extending service reductions already in place: longer waits for trains and shorter hours.
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami
Alice Bravo, Gimenez’s transportation director, noted Miami-Dade’s last pursuit of federal funds occurred about a decade ago, to extend Metrorail to the north. It fizzled once the county confronted the reality of operating the expanded system. “They couldn’t show how the funding would work,” she said.
Viability is a central requirement for pursuing federal funds, since Washington will subsidize construction of new transit systems but not their operations. In 2002, Miami-Dade leaders persuaded voters to approve a half-percent sales tax dedicated to transportation, with promises it would fund an historic expansion of Metrorail. Despite generating $2.8 billion in 15 years, the “half-penny” tax has produced fewer than three new miles of track in the 25-mile system.
Diaz-Balart, a former state lawmaker, was elected to Congress in 2002, so his career in the House tracks the life of Miami-Dade’s transportation tax. He has always sat on the appropriations subcommittee that governs spending for the departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development (“THUD” to insiders), and became chairman in 2014.
Conducting these studies are the first proactive step toward sending a project to Congressman Diaz-Balart.
Alice Bravo, Miami-Dade transportation director, on the SMART transit plan
The committee is particularly influential when it comes to local funding, since it oversees the legislation that allows both agencies to spend federal dollars. While the White House budget proposals that strip billions from HUD and transportation grants make headlines, Diaz-Balart’s committee writes the bills that often undo those threats and allow departments to continue spending as usual. In June, he announced a $4 million infusion of homeless aid to Miami-Dade, making up the bulk of the $6 million the county lost under the Obama administration.
For significant transit help, Miami-Dade would first need approval from the federal Transportation Department. With the Trump administration proposing severe cuts to the kind of grants that can steer billions to new rail systems, Gimenez opted to include zero dollars in federal aid when he proposed a $534 million rapid-bus system for the north and south SMART corridors.
Diaz-Balart noted Congress is likely to approve keeping those transit programs in place. He sees his position giving him a chance to help Miami-Dade secure federal approval, and then a central role in making his home county a winner in the Congressional appropriations process once Miami is competing with municipalities across the country for federal dollars that exceed administration approvals.
“I’ve done things for Jacksonville. I’ve done things for Orlando,” he said. “There’s never anything from Miami-Dade County.”
Diaz-Balart said the county’s window is closing. If Republicans lose the House in 2018, a Democrat will take over the chairmanship of the subcommittee; he would likely rotate to another post in 2020 even if his party retains control.
Bravo, the county’s transportation director, said Miami-Dade may still call on Diaz-Balart for help with the rapid-bus plan that Gimenez recommended. While the current financing plan assumes Florida will split the construction and land-acquisition costs with Miami-Dade, a modernized bus system — with dedicated lanes and cutting-edge buses that allow for group boarding, air-conditioned depots and computerized guidance equipment — could qualify for millions in federal aid.
The studies for the six Strategic Miami Area Rapid Transit corridors are required for federal aid. Bravo argues the SMART Plan represents a milestone toward tapping Diaz-Balart’s help after years of inaction.
“Conducting these studies are the first proactive step toward sending a project to Congressman Diaz-Balart,” she said. Bravo said pursuing federal aid for a project as complicated as rail expansion could leave Miami-Dade waiting until well after the 2020 presidential elections for an answer from Washington. “The fastest any city has done that is in five years,’ she said.
While Diaz-Balart singled out for praise a top rail advocate, County Commission Chairman Esteban “Steve” Bovo, he stopped short of urging Miami-Dade to hold out for a Metrorail expansion as it considers transit options.
“I’m at the point now,” Diaz-Balart said, “where I would support whatever.”