Should Miami-Dade keep paving roads with the tax voters passed to expand Metrorail?

After more than 15 years of approving road projects, the Miami-Dade board overseeing the county’s “half-penny” transportation tax may be ready for a fight.

The director of the county’s Citizens Independent Transportation Trust, created in 2002 to monitor a new half-percent sales tax that was supposed to dramatically expand transit countywide, is recommending members block spending $1.7 million of the funds on road paving.

While the paving contract is eligible for the “half-penny” tax and the county has used the money on roadwork for years, board director Javier Betancourt said in a memo the project would provide no “meaningful” improvement for the county’s transportation system.

The proposed $1.7 million in resurfacing work does not specify a particular street or road, but instead gives the Public Works department authority to spend the money when needed.

The Transportation Trust board meets Wednesday. If it approves Betancourt’s recommendation, it would be the first time the oversight panel rejected a spending proposal by the county’s administration, according to the panel’s lawyer.

That would follow another first by the board, which on Tuesday won a showdown with the County Commission on retiring a 2009 waiver that let the county spend the half-percent tax on routine transit operations.

Last August, the board voted to rescind its 2009 authorization of the change, which dropped a rule that Miami-Dade’s transit agency only spend the tax on expanding transit and on the new maintenance and operation expenses that come with the new projects. It was the first time the board tried to exercise its authority over spending of the “half-penny” tax, though the commission can override the panel with a two-thirds vote.

Miami-Dade Commissioner Rebeca Sosa in February filed legislation to reject the board’s plan to end the routine transit subsidies on Oct. 1, the start of the 2019-2020 budget year. Sosa cited drastic transit cuts that would be needed to comply with the board’s wishes, and proposed ending the subsidies in late 2020 instead.

On Tuesday, Sosa reversed course.

“I withdraw my motion,” Sosa said, citing discussions with Mayor Carlos Gimenez and his budget director, Jennifer Moon. “I want to thank [them] for working together, and to go back to do what the people voted to do with the half-penny.”

Evan Fancher, a former commission aide who now sits on the Transportation Trust board, submitted the original resolution last August that triggered the showdown. He said Tuesday’s move, which included a commission vote to endorse the board’s request, represented a win for voters.

“Today was a good day,” said Fancher, director of the South Miami Community Development Agency. “Because the intent of the original referendum was upheld by the commission.”

The move leaves Gimenez to propose a 2020 budget that doesn’t use the tax for routine transit operations. Property taxes already play a larger role in the county’s transportation budget and more of the transportation tax is paying off debt for new Metrorail cars and buses. Out of a $590 million transit budget, about $95 million comes from the half-percent transportation tax this year.

Budget math is the key to the administration accepting the transportation board’s demands. Recent forecasts from the budget office show about $85 million of operational subsidies would remain under the rule change. That’s the office’s estimate of how much new projects approved in the 2002 referendum cost each year to run and maintain — including free Metromover service, and a 2 1/2-mile extension of Metrorail to Miami International Airport.

For the 2019-20 budget, the gap narrows even more. Moon said Tuesday that returning to the original rules of the transportation tax would free up $9 million on Oct. 1. That’s a relatively small sum. Miami-Dade estimates the new Metrorail extension to one station eats up about $35 million a year of the transportation tax.

That could make the transit budget’s assumptions the next battle ground for the Transportation Trust. Betancourt, who started as director in January 2018, said the board wanted to meet with Moon to determine how much money ending the 2009 waiver would make available for new projects.

“We would like an opportunity to meet with the Office of Management Budget to determine what the number is,” Betancourt said after the vote. “Because we’ve heard different numbers. Obviously, there are a number of assumptions that will have to be made.”