State and local lawmakers from Miami-Dade gathered over coffee and pastelitos Monday morning. That’s where the sweetness ended.
“We hope our delegation will not cut off our noses to spite our faces,” County Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava said of a bill by a Miami-Dade representative that would ban spending the county’s half-percent transportation sales tax on operating new transit lines.
The bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Bryan Avila of Hialeah, sat a few chairs away. Along with rewriting the rules for the county’s “half penny” transportation tax, his legislation would abolish the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority. A majority of the toll board is appointed by the County Commission, and the county’s two senior leaders — Mayor Carlos Gimenez and Commission Chairwoman Audrey Edmonson — hold two of the nine MDX seats.
“I’m not here to have a long political career,” said Avila, R-Hialeah. He then cited Miami-Dade’s stadium deals over the last 20 years in explaining how the county took its focus off transportation and ended up with a “third-rate transportation system.”
“I’m very encouraged by the fact that now we’re seeing this focus on transportation,” Avila said. “I just wish we would have had it a long time ago.”
Gimenez is trying to negotiate an end to Avila’s bill, either through a rewrite or by killing it outright. State Sen. Manny Diaz Jr., who is sponsoring a companion MDX bill, hinted at a negotiated truce.
“I’m open to listening,” Diaz, R-Hialeah Gardens, said during the morning event at the county-owned Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami. “I’m sure Rep. Avila is open to listening.”
The joint meeting between Miami-Dade’s local elected leaders and the county’s state delegation was billed as a way to collaborate on joint legislative priorities. Unofficially, it was a chance for restrained venting between two entities with a history of bad relations.
Local state lawmakers say they’re trying to force the changes voters want but the county has been unable to deliver. County commissioners routinely complain in public that their top foes in Tallahassee are from Miami-Dade, frustrating efforts at a united front for state funding.
“We spend so much time and effort fighting our own people,” Dennis Moss, one of the two senior members of the County Commission, said last week. “While people from other areas are working together and are bringing home the bacon … our own people are trying to undermine us.”
Moss didn’t attend Monday’s joint meeting. The session saw his fellow commissioners raise other priorities for Miami-Dade, including support for expanding Miami’s needle-exchange program, more state money to deal with septic tanks threatened by sea-level rise, and more state dollars for Miami-Dade schools and the county’s Jackson hospital system.
But the companion bills by Avila (HB 385) and Diaz (SB 898) sparked the most exchanges between the two camps. The legislation would upend much of the landscape for how the county spends money on transportation.
The legislation would dissolve the MDX, transferring control of State Road 836, the Don Shula, and three other expressways controlled by the board. Florida’s Transportation Department would take over the expressways. Tolling would cease once existing MDX debt was retired. It also would shrink a county board known as the Transportation Planning Organization from 25 seats to 19, eliminating spots for the school board and some cities on a panel that oversees federal funding for roads and transit.
The bill also would rewrite the rules for the half-percent sales tax that Miami-Dade voters approved in 2002 for transportation projects. Aimed at expanding Metrorail and doubling the county’s bus fleet, the tax was restricted to construction, vehicle purchases and operating costs for any transit system created with the new levy.
During Miami’s real estate crash in 2009, Miami-Dade commissioners voted to use the tax to subsidize routine transit operations, too, and about $95 million went into the agency’s operating budget this year. The Avila and Diaz legislation would impose stricter rules than existed after the 2002 vote by banning any use of the transportation tax for transit operations.
Rep. Kionne McGhee, D-Cutler Bay, used some of his time Monday to deliver a dig at MDX’s signature project: a proposed 13-mile extension of the 836 into West Kendall. Championed by Gimenez and opposed by environmentalists and transit advocates, the $1 billion project would launch a new highway into undeveloped land west of the county’s suburbs.
“The future of this county should not include the building of more roads,” said McGhee, who is preparing to run for County Commission in 2020. He urged MDX to spend its toll reserves on new transit lines instead of on a new highway.
Gimenez regularly warns against treating transit as a silver-bullet cure to traffic, noting trains and buses are used only by a small portion of a population that mostly travels by automobile.
“Frankly, we can’t afford to have public transportation that will take you from everywhere to everywhere at this point in time,” he said Monday. “There is only one thing worse than traffic. That’s no traffic. If you have no traffic, that means your town is dead. … This town is growing, and more and more people are coming. That’s not a bad thing.”