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4/18/02: Miami News Today

Tri-Rail Authority may be seed for creating broader regional transportation agency

By Jaime Levy

The need for a powerful regional transportation authority able to grab millions of dollars in state and federal money could be filled by the existing Tri-Rail board, according to a proposal being fine-tuned by high-profile South Florida business leaders.

With a regional oversight body, South Florida would become eligible for millions of state and federal dollars. Forming the agency does not guarantee new money but, united, the three counties would not have to compete against each other in Tallahassee and Washington, DC, and would be on more equal footing with areas of comparable size.

Advocates for a regional transportation authority say such an agency is also needed to improve cross-county connections.

Forged in 1989 by the Florida Department of Transportation, the Tri-County Commuter Rail Authority already can issue bonds, enter contracts and has power of condemnation, allowing it to buy land. The board was created to build South Florida's 71-mile commuter line.

Representatives from the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, plus the Broward Workshop and Palm Beach Economic Council - all consortiums of business leaders - have been discussing the use of Tri-Rail's infrastructure as the backbone for a regional transportation authority. They hope to present a proposal to county officials in May.

"I think starting with Tri-Rail is a logical approach," said James Cummings, Tri-Rail chair. "It's already established and has a proven track record of being able to operate successfully in the tri-county area. It can serve all three counties without being parochial. By using Tri-Rail, it won't give rise to another governmental bureaucracy - it would just be building on one we already have."

The business leaders' ideas are not the only suggestions for establishing a viable regional transportation system and securing new funds. Such discussions have accelerated since a Jan. 11 summit on regional transportation which left government officials, industry experts and private-sector activists cheering for cross-county cooperation.

"Having business support is important because business and transportation are so inextricably linked," said Miami-Dade Commissioner Katy Sorenson, chair of the existing South Florida Regional Transportation Organization, which works with transportation organizations from each county as well as Tri-Rail, but which has no policy-making authority.

At the end of the summit, organizers promised to make significant headway in 100 days to formulate the plan for an agency to oversee connections across county lines and make bids for millions of state and federal dollars.

The deadline is nearing. Although no formal proposal has been agreed upon by the business leaders, three tenets have emerged as central themes. Those are that:

nA regional transportation authority be built around the backbone of Tri-Rail;

nTri-Rail's mission be expanded to include east-west light rail possibilities and cross-county bus lines;

nThe entity be partly funded through a $2 increase in license plate taxes.

Transportation issues will be discussed at an April 29 meeting of the three counties' commissions, but the proposal to broaden Tri-Rail's scope is unlikely to be put on the table until May 15.

Representatives from the business organizations in the three counties are working on the plan and hope to convince government officials that the Tri-Rail Authority already has an effective track record in terms of working across three counties.

"We don't want to create any more competing or new agencies," said Mike Jones, president & CEO of the Palm Beach Economic Council, which says there are already 150 governmental bodies in Palm Beach County alone. "We want to reform the existing entities and structure to make them more efficient and effective rather than go out and start funding a new enterprise. We'd like to see more consolidation rather than every time there's a new problem creating a new government."

Along with preventing more red tape, using Tri-Rail as the foundation for the regional authority could ease the major sticking point between the counties: what the membership of a new body would look like. Consistently, the three governments have hesitated to combine resources, with Miami-Dade commissioners worried that its large population wouldn't be fairly represented and Palm Beach concerned that its relatively small constituency would be overlooked with population-based representation.

"The easiest thing would be to change the name of Tri-Rail to the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority," said Allen Harper, a board member of the Regional Transportation Organization and Tri-Rail and chair of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce's transportation committee. "By doing that, it's an existing organization with existing membership. You don't have to battle again to find out who's doing what.

"Why get into a fight today? Why not build on the little bit of regionalism we have in Tri-Rail today?" he asked.

The Tri-Rail board consists of one commissioner from each of the three counties, one business representative from each, an appointee of the governor, a representative from the Florida Department of Transportation district and a member at-large.

Palm Beach County Commissioner Carol Roberts, vice chair of the Regional Transportation Organization and a member of Tri-Rail's board, agreed that the organization could be an effective model for tri-county teamwork.

"Our commission," Ms. Roberts said, "believes we need equal representation. We need to put aside our turf" issues.

"Working with an existing body," she said, "we're already aware of each other and work with each other. I think it could work well.

"I would hope the business community's input would make the counties understand that we need to work together efficiently as a region. Two of three counties already know that."

Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas said he thought a regional body needed "fair representation, whatever that is."

A white paper he wrote in January recommended establishing from scratch a regional transportation body that would be made up of equal numbers of commissioners, city representatives and citizens from each county, plus a set of six representatives appointed by the governor based on the population of each county.

When asked Monday about the configuration of a regional transportation authority, Mayor Penelas said his January report was just a "starting point."

"There are," he said, "broader issues related to a regional transportation system." He would not elaborate.

Acknowledging that Tri-Rail's infrastructure alone - a commuter rail that runs for 71 miles and has, according to the agency, more than 2 million riders each year - cannot serve the region's needs, Mr. Harper and his colleagues will likely suggest that a support network for other modes of transportation authority be introduced to a regional authority.

Although the individual counties are working to improve their own local transportation systems - most visibly in Miami-Dade with a push by Mayor Penelas for a transportation tax on November's ballot - a regional transportation authority would likely provide some amount of buttressing to the main rail line.

"I think we need two things in terms of transportation," said Neisen Kasdin, former mayor of Miami Beach and a long-time advocate for improving mass transit. "I think those two elements are Tri-Rail. And the missing element: a great local transportation system that connects the city centers and urban cores of the three counties.

"You can't send a train into every suburb, but what you can do in the more urbanized areas is create a system like light rail that will do a good job of connecting people in the urban cores to the residential centers."

Commissioner Sorenson said a regional transportation authority born of Tri-Rail could, to some extent, handle that role.

"Expansion to an RTA means we need to look at the entire system - light rail, rail, buses," she said. "All those can be explored effectively through an RTA."

The third prominent theme, a $2 increase on the vehicle registration surcharge, would provide more funds to a Tri-Rail system with broader powers. The system now gets $1.55 million from each of the three counties and generates under $6 million from fares. The rest of its funds come from state and federal coffers.

"Two dollars on every tag - I would give that gladly if I can get to work in 45 minutes," said Mr. Cummings, the Tri-Rail chair who is co-chair of the transportation committee of the Broward Workshop. "We're trying to give the communities a tri-county transportation system that gets rid of gridlock."

The fee, he said, "is nothing."

But that idea may not take too well with taxpayers. According to a survey released in February by Miami-Dade's Citizens Transportation Advisory Committee survey, less than 1% of those who favored finding a dedicated local source of transportation funding said an auto registry tax would be an appropriate revenue stream. Instead, other user fees such as tolls, parking charges and gas taxes were favored. The survey questioned 1,500 Miami-Dade residents.

The themes coming forth from discussions among business leaders contrast too with those presented by Mayor Penelas in late January. In his white paper on transportation reform, Mayor Penelas suggested that Miami-Dade's Metropolitan Planning Organization should first be reorganized, then a regional version should be established.

Once a regional planning organization is functional, the mayor wrote, a regional transportation authority could be formed, uniting the three counties' metropolitan planning organizations under one umbrella.

"I'm open to any legitimate suggestions," Mayor Penelas said Monday about the ideas coming from the private sector.

But the step-by-step outline the mayor put forth as a discussion-starter may be too time-consuming for the group of business executives who say working quickly is crucial.

The next round of federal transportation funds will be available in 2003 or possibly 2004 - and a functional regional system needs to be in place in order to qualify for those funds.

"There is a timetable. We can't just talk about this for a year," Mr. Cummings, a general contractor, said. "If you miss it this time, the transportation bill comes up again in five years. And for a regional transportation program, it takes about six to eight years once you get funding. So if you miss 2004, you're at 2008 or 2009. Add another six to seven years on, and you're at 2015. What are we going to do between now and then? We can't wait until 2015.

"That's what has the business community looking into this," he said. "We can't allow political bickering to stop our programming."