One promise that’s held up well from Miami-Dade’s transportation tax: road projects

Miami-Dade’s transportation tax may not have expanded Metrorail as advertised or doubled the county’s bus fleet, but it has been a consistent success in delivering on promised road projects.

The county’s plan to spend $7 million from the half-percent sales tax to widen Southwest 137th Avenue would scratch off one of the last major projects on the roadwork list that was pitched to voters during the 2002 referendum.

A county tracker shows 34 of the 38 road projects requested by Miami-Dade commissioners for the 2002 sales-tax referendum are completed or under construction. The rest are listed as discontinued over unexpected circumstances, or merged into other projects.

A separate list of major transit projects touted during the referendum is much less encouraging.

While more than 90 miles of “rapid transit” was supposed to be added to the 23-mile Metrorail system, it grew by only three miles in more than 15 years. A bus fleet that was supposed to grow from 700 to 1,300 vehicles remains below 800.

“I would really like it if transit was prioritized the way roads are prioritized,” said Marta Viciedo, chair of Transit Alliance Miami.

The proposed widening of Southwest 137th Avenue still requires approval by the County Commission and the Miami-Dade board that oversees the transportation tax, which generates more than $250 million a year in revenue.

The road project’s trip through the legislative process comes as Miami-Dade is under pressure to only spend “half-penny” dollars on big-ticket transit items.

“We are not allowing any new road projects into our five-year plan,” said Javier Betancourt, executive director of the Citizens’ Independent Transportation Trust, which oversees the funds generated by the sales tax.

That’s fine by Miami-Dade County’s Transportation Department, which describes the 137th Avenue widening as basically the last of its kind. “We don’t have any other major road projects in the works,” said Alice Bravo, the county’s director of Transportation and Public Works.

House Bill 385, legislation filed by Rep. Bryan Avila, R-Hialeah, would bar Miami-Dade from spending future transportation taxes on roads after 2022. The proposed law requires that county transportation-tax dollars not committed to existing debt only pay for big-ticket transit items, such as new buses and rail systems.

By the numbers, transit has accounted for the vast majority of the nearly $3 billion generated by the tax since 2002.

Transit projects getting the most money

A 2018 report by the county’s auditor showed about $1.4 billion went to subsidize transit operations. That practice is set to end in 2024 as budget forecasts show debt payments on new Metrorail cars and buses eating up dollars that could be used to pay salaries and maintenance costs.

Of the more than $600 million in transportation taxes paying for actual projects, about 70 percent went to transit efforts, according to the report. The bulk of that covered debt payments for the 2012 opening of the Orange Line, the nearly three-mile extension of Metrorail to Miami International Airport.

The remaining 30 percent of the transportation-tax money spent on projects went to public works, including widening of roads, upgrading traffic lights and improving sidewalks, according to the audit.

Some promises on roads weren’t fulfilled. The “People’s Transportation Plan” that accompanied the 2002 referendum campaign said the tax would create “viable reverse flow lanes on major thoroughfares.” The county’s latest status report lists that would-be project as “unfunded.”

A related report ticks off dozens of smaller transit-related projects that were completed, such as $70 million for new Metromover cars and $9 million on new bus-cleaning equipment. Miami-Dade is also spending about $8 million in transportation taxes to help bring Tri-Rail to downtown Miami.

For every dollar of transportation tax the county collects, about 20 cents goes to cities. Those governments can spend the money on roads and transit, too. A county audit of transportation-tax spending in Miami, which gets the largest municipal share, showed the city spending more on road and street projects than on transit.

Miami’s Trolley System

In 2017, according to the audit, Miami spent $10.5 million of its allocation on transit needs, including $6.2 million on its free trolley system and $3.6 million for the Tri-Rail station in downtown Miami. About $14.8 million went to transportation projects, including $6 million to cover debt payments for work on streets and sidewalks, about $4.7 million on street lighting and another $3.6 million on street improvements.

City spokesman John Heffernan said Tuesday that Miami is now spending more on its trolley system (about $14 million a year) than it is on debt for road projects (about $6 million a year).

Costs help explain why road projects have such a winning record on the county’s transportation-tax scorecard.

Transit projects cost far more than localized roadwork. Redoing Northwest 138th Street in 2012 cost about $4 million. Just building a new test track for the Metrorail replacement cars cost $18 million in 2013. Replacing the Metrorail cars is budgeted at more than $380 million, and Miami-Dade also lists $40 million in money borrowed against transit taxes to replace aging buses with vehicles powered by compressed natural gas.

Miami-Dade plans to borrow the $7 million needed to turn a two-lane stretch of Southwest 137th into four lanes. The work is designed to speed traffic flow between U.S. 1 and the Turnpike.

Melissa Olson said she’s a regular driver on 137th Avenue from her home in Homestead, and she sees the road as one in desperate need of help.

“It’s just a mess,” she said. “I’m from Boston, which also has some pretty insane traffic. But when I go home, it’s like nothing compared to Miami. And I learned to drive in L.A.”

Even though Bravo said no major road projects are in the pipeline for transit-tax funding, the money will continue funding streets, sidewalks and roadwork.

A forecast the county released in December shows roughly $3.5 million a year going to new public works projects, a category that includes roads, sidewalks and similar infrastructure. Another $25 million goes to cover debt payments on completed road projects.

Even if Avila’s bill becomes law, it would bar the county from spending future dollars on road projects but it specifically allows cities to keep spending their share of transportation-tax funds on roads and bridges. In a statement, Avila said cities are better at spending the dollars efficiently and the “county should be focused on bigger transportation solutions.”