MICHAEL
NEWS
Miami creates mass transit trust fund
2015-09-30
BY DAVID SMILEY

The Miami area remains among the most congested in the nation, and drivers fed up with stop-and-go commutes want solutions. On Thursday, Miami city leaders took a step toward addressing the problem.

Miami Commissioners unanimously approved creating a transportation trust fund to establish a pot of money that can be used to fund large and small transit projects. The trust fund, proposed by Commissioner Francis Suarez, starts off with $1.6 million allocated in the current year's general fund.

That's not much, considering that major transportation projects typically approach and surpass $1 billion. But it's another signal that the city, which along with several semi-autonomous entities recently agreed to contribute about $30 million to bring Tri-Rail commuter trains downtown, is interested in being part of a solution. And Suarez believes the fund can grow quickly

“I think it could be a fund that actually has quite a bit of money in it,” he said. “It’s a start in getting us to think and be proactive.”

Suarez began pushing for the trust fund several months ago as the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority sought $69 million from public entities to bring Tri-Rail trains downtown. Miami commissioners also voted to expand Miami's trolley system into Wynwood, Coconut Grove and other neighborhoods not yet serviced by the city-funded system. Administrators said the move would quickly deplete a small reserve the city had set aside for transit projects from the city’s cut of the county’s half-cent transit tax.

Suarez said he realized it was time to create a transportation fund so that the city wouldn’t “have to scramble” to find money for needed projects.

“It’s time we started thinking ahead,” he said.

The legislation approved Thursday ensures that 20 percent of any unrestricted, one-time payment to the city of at least $500,000 will go into the trust fund. For instance, should the city ever receive the $10 million payment related to the SkyRise tower project, $2 million would go into the account.

The fund will also receive 20 percent of any cash payment by developers for “air rights,” sold by the city’s public benefits program, excluding amounts reserved for affordable and workforce housing. And every budget year, 0.25 percent of Miami’s general fund ($615 million in 2016) will go into the transportation fund. A third funding source comes from transit-oriented-developments that pay the city to receive reductions in parking requirements, legislation that was also approved Thursday.

The first installment of money to the fund might come soon. The commission approved a massive $1 billion complex on the Miami River Thursday. To build four towers up to 60 stories, the developer will purchase $21 million in air rights from the city. Most of that money will go into projects in the neighborhood, like a public river walk, but $1.5 million will go into the transportation trust. (An additional $14 million will also be paid toward affordable and workforce housing, due to negotiations between the developer and Commissioner Frank Carollo.)

Commissioners also agreed Thursday to a land swap with All Aboard Florida in which the company will pay the city $500,000, 20 percent of which could go into the transportation trust if the city deems the payment eligible.

In the deal, Miami will vacate the portion of Northwest First Avenue that curves west and cuts into a block on First Street owned by the company. The city will also give up a small triangle of “park” space in front of the Miami-Dade Courthouse. All Aboard, in return, would give to the city land at 435 NW First Ct., where Miami wants to build a new fire station, assuming the city can also purchase an adjacent parcel owned by AT&T. That station would replace Miami’s old Fire Station #1, at Northwest Fifth Street.

Right now, All Aboard has plans to build rail platforms, hotel rooms, office suites and rental apartments at MiamiCentral. Four office and rental towers are planned on the four northern blocks, and renderings released months ago show only a parking lot on the fifth block to the south.

Miami City Manager Daniel Alfonso previously told the Miami Herald that All Aboard Florida plans to build a fifth tower with the extra land, but an All Aboard Florida spokeswoman could not provide details Thursday.