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7/8/02 - Miami Today News

Regional transportation authority gains popularity as key to traffic solutions, Free fares proposed.

By Frank Norton

In an effort to flex the kind of regional muscle that could attract federal transit funds by a 2003 deadline, the existing Tri-Rail board is backing a plan to expand into South Florida's Regional Transportation Authority.

The new authority would combine all rail, bus and other transit services across Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties into one regional operation, unifying purchasing, planning and customer service.

The move, unanimously approved Friday by the Tri-County Commuter Rail Authority, or Tri-Rail, is seen as spearheading efforts to improve regional cooperation and bring political and economic benefits. It also signals a stepped-up push to get South Floridians out of their cars and into mass transit to alleviate traffic.

Miami-Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach-Boca Raton ranked 5th and 2nd in the nation respectively in percentage increases in commuter travel time between 1990 and 2000, according to the US Census.

"Consolidating mass transit means putting rubber and rail under one authority so we can speak as a region to the state and federal governments and get more dollars in the long term," said Broward Commissioner and rail authority board member Lori Nance Parrish, who said she strongly supports a regional transit authority.

"You'll find that when different areas in a region chip in and work together on these kinds of efforts, plans get funded," she said.

In order to qualify for matching dollars by the federal government's November '03 funding window these three initiatives need to succeed:

Tri-county legislative delegation must lobby for Tri-Rail's expanded authority.

A state legislative mandate must approve that organizational change.

A public works revenue stream must be created to fund future projects.

If those needs go unmet, the federal window for funds closes for another six years.

The Miami-Dade County Commission is expected to vote July 9 in favor of Tri-Rail's expansion. The board's transportation committee already has unanimously endorsed the proposal, as have the full county commissions in Palm Beach and Broward County.

Forged in 1989 by the Florida Department of Transportation, the Tri-County Commuter Rail Authority already has the ability to 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.

If turned into a regional transportation authority, Tri-Rail would propose raising its own share of funds by charging a $2 tag fee on all vehicle registrations and renewals, generating about $8.3 million a year. But Miami-Dade Commissioner Bruno Barreiro says that sum would be merely a starting point.

"I don't want the public to think that $8 million is a cure-all," he said.

Still, the commissioner said, the tag surcharge would be critical to winning federal matching funds and could be supplemented by bond issues - a right already granted Tri-Rail that would carry over to the expanded authority.

He said regional cooperation, however, remains the ultimate priority.

"This is an opportunity to plan cooperatively, streamline the administration of our transportation systems and compete as a region," said Commissioner Barreiro, who is also the authority's incoming chairman. "We definitely don't want to miss that window."

"There's no question," said Miami-Dade County board member Al Harper, "we'll get the necessary steps in place in every possible way to smooth out the flow of travel between the three counties, regardless of political boundaries."

One of the more ambitious goals supported by Commissioner Barreiro and other directors is a free-pass concept for mass transit users.

"Every time I've talked about it the board has supported it. We just need to find a revenue source to offset the cost," Commissioner Barreiro said.

He and other supporters said no transit authority is self-sufficient but those enjoying the greatest use in Europe and the US are significantly subsidized.

A free-pass initiative would require approval from the state legislature, Broward Commissioner Parrish said.

"It would encourage people to give up their cars for a free ride on a bus or a train. It would be worthwhile," Commissioner Parrish said.

According to a June 2002 report by the Texas Transportation Institute, the annual cost of traffic congestion in Miami is about $1.5 billion, while its toll on Fort Lauderdale is estimated at $605 million. Orlando placed 3rd among Florida cities at $555 million while the Tampa areas and Jacksonville were 4th and 5th at $430 million and $360 million, respectively.