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4/30/02 - Sun Sentinel

Tri-county transit plan in jeopardy over Miami-Dade demands

By Michael Turnbell

Hopes for a powerful new agency that would develop effective mass transit from West Palm Beach to Miami dimmed Monday when some officials in South Florida's most populous county balked at joining.

Miami-Dade County commissioners want more clout on the regional board, which would have the ability to borrow money and raise taxes to pay for large transit projects in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties.

But Broward and Palm Beach commissioners won't support a so-called South Florida Regional Transportation Authority unless each county is represented equally on the board. And they say they're prepared to forge ahead on their own and possibly team up with counties north of Palm Beach if Miami-Dade won't agree to those terms.

"I'm frustrated," Broward commission Chairwoman Lori Parrish said at a joint meeting of the three county commissions. "Broward and Palm Beach are well prepared with our act together. We have studied the doggone thing to death."

The Regional Transportation Organization, an advisory group of elected officials, business leaders and transportation officials from Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade, wants to use Tri-Rail's board, with equal representation from the three counties, as the backbone of the regional transportation authority.

It would levy a $1 surcharge on license-plate fees, raising up to $8 million a year that could be used to borrow more money and leverage the hundreds of millions necessary to make mass transit a viable alternative to driving in South Florida.

Supporters had hoped to walk away from Monday's meeting with a consensus on a bill that could be submitted to state legislators next year to get the process rolling. But in the end, commissioners could only agree to meet once more in September to try to resolve their differences.

Broward Commissioner Josephus Eggelletion said the region must get in line quickly if it hopes to score a chunk of the federal money that will be divvied up when the new highway and mass transit bill that outlines spending for the next six years is drawn up next year.

Improvement planning

Otherwise, the money will go to places such as Central Florida, Dallas, Denver and Atlanta that are on the same page when it comes to mass transit.

"By not making a decision, we could sit here for 12 years before we ever get to the point of drawing federal dollars to meet the region's transportation needs," Eggelletion said.

As a backdrop to Monday's discussion, Miami-Dade officials are pushing hard to gain voter support this fall for a half-cent sales tax that would raise $150 million a year and match state and federal dollars to improve Metrorail and other mass transit in Miami-Dade.

Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas said that increasing license-plate fees wouldn't make a dent in curbing the region's transportation problems, saying the idea would be a waste of time.

Instead of a regional transportation authority, Penelas proposed creating a new regional planning body responsible for developing regional transportation projects in the three counties. The new regional metropolitan planning organization would replace existing planning groups in each of the counties that decide how federal dollars are spent for road and transit projects in their respective county.

"Everyone agrees the future of South Florida depends on regional cooperation," Penelas said. "The devil is in the detail."

But Broward commissioners said they won't abolish the county's Planning Board because cities would lose a say in how transportation dollars are spent. Palm Beach Commissioner Tony Masilotti said he couldn't support giving up his county's Planning Board until the county's road system is up to par.

Miami-Dade Commissioner Bruno Barreiro, a Tri-Rail board member, said he likes the idea of using Tri-Rail as a way of starting a regional transportation authority. But he said the new authority's board should reflect Miami-Dade's larger population, bigger transit budget, and higher bus and train ridership.

Separate but equal

"We don't have to be the biggest forever," Barreiro said, suggesting the new board's make up could change as the populations of Broward and Palm Beach increase.

Palm Beach Commissioner Burt Aaronson said the regional transportation authority, like Tri-Rail's board has shown, would put the needs of the region first and not individual counties.

But not everyone in Miami-Dade is opposed to giving Broward and Palm Beach counties what they want.

Miami-Dade Commissioner Katy Sorenson, who heads the Regional Transit Organization, said she supports Broward and Palm Beach counties in their quest for equal representation. "Sometimes you have to give away power to get power back," Sorenson said. "We have a mechanism already in place. It wouldn't be that difficult to go with that model."

Ready to move

Broward's Parrish said the make up of Tri-Rail's board has worked well for all three counties, pointing out that Broward and Palm Beach pitched in extra money for Tri-Rail when Miami-Dade opted not to contribute to the rail agency a few years back.

"We've demonstrated our willingness to work with [Dade]. We've shown how committed we are to partner with you," Parrish said.

Michael Turnbell can be reached at or 954-356-4155.