Miami gets a two-thirds hosing

Miami-Dade Transit cannot afford to build, operate and maintain two-thirds of the Metrorail corridors promised to voters when they approved a half-cent sales tax in 2002, according to internal financial analyses obtained by The Herald. The revised projections still call for three extensions to the original Metrorail line. But the latest forecasts contain no money for the six other corridors, costing an estimated $3.5 billion.

How could this happen?

The main reasons: fewer prospects for federal money than forecast; an existing deficit not discussed during the campaign; declining fare revenue; and several expensive programs that county commissioners added to the plan.

But it was just an honest mistake, right? Doesn’t seem like it. According to a Miami Herald investigation, here’s how the swindle went down:

County officials, including former Transit Director Danny Alvarez and former County Manager Steve Shiver, presented unrealistic forecasts in July 2002 that persuaded commissioners to put the tax on the ballot. Current officials say Alvarez and Shiver overstated the amount of matching federal dollars that Transit could qualify for and failed to point out operating deficits that would have exploded once the lines were built. Alvarez, who resigned in 2003, said he and Shiver are convenient scapegoats after leaving County Hall. He said that administrators and elected officials knew that they couldn’t deliver on all of the corridors promised in the campaign, but that nobody chose to lead. ”They knew the situation,” Alvarez said. “They knew that we couldn’t build more than two lines at a time with the federal funding situation. I told them . . . in July of 2003 that they were going to have to prioritize which lines went first and which would come later. To say now that we didn’t tell them the situation with the federal funding just isn’t true.”

Error or lie? That’s the subtitle of this study of cost projections in public works projects. The authors fall down on the “lie” side, and note that, while many transportation projects are more costly than projected, rail projects have the steepest cost escalation of all.