Taxpayers who never step foot on a Broward County bus might be asked to reach deeper into their pockets to contribute more to the system over the coming 10 years.
A 10-year transit development plan for Broward County that was approved by the County Commission on Tuesday identified funding as a growing problem, even for the system to maintain the status quo. If the system is to expand to meet anticipated needs, the funding gap is enormous.
The vision plan, a state requirement, plants the earliest seeds for a possible referendum to increase the sales tax. That option was identified in the vision plan and discussed by county commissioners on Tuesday, a hint of what's to come.
A similar effort went down in defeat seven years ago.
"We know that the system needs to grow in the future to meet needs," County Mayor Kristin Jacobs said. "It is time for that bigger conversation."
The 10-year plan found:
The demand for transit in Broward County is growing, with a 10 percent increase over the past five years in the number of people who need public transit.
An April poll of 502 voters in Broward found that "the top issue of local concern is traffic, transportation and infrastructure/roads," and 77 percent said that expanding public transportation should be a top priority for the county.
Ridership has increased 209 percent over the past 25 years, though it dipped during the recent recessionary years, when fares went up and spending and service were slashed.
The system is one of the most cost-effective in the country, subsidizing 66 percent of the $1.75 fare. But that also means buses are packed and often have standing room only, and delays are increasingly common because of the time spent loading passengers.
Overall, the public believes Broward County "is doing a good job," the report says. People asked for improved bicycle and pedestrian connectivity, though, and for expanded, more frequent bus service and a real-time information system, which the county is working on.
A funding gap will appear next year because of an expected drop in gas tax revenue and increased expenses to keep up with growing ridership. The gap next year, just to maintain the status quo level of service, begins at $15 million, including the need for major capital spending. It is projected to escalate every year, to an expected $48 million in 2023. Money to cover the gapwould come from property taxes, unless a new source of funding is found.
If improvements were made, ridership would increase 69 percent over 10 years -- from 39 million to 66 million riders -- but the funding gap then would be huge, totaling $24 million next year and $224 million in 2023. This year's transit budget is $132 million, plus $94 million in capital expenses.
Commisioners said they were encouraged by the results of a poll in July of 500 registered voters who were asked if they'd vote for a half-cent increase in the sales tax to pay for expanded bus service.
The margin between "yes'" and "no" was slim, 49 percent to 45 percent. But after hearing additional information about it during the poll, the "yes" votes went up to 58 percent and the no votes dropped to 39 perent.
Commissioner Tim Ryan suggested that for a sales tax initiative to be successful, voters be told that an improved transit system reduces congestion for those in cars, as well. A sales tax hike would cut the burden on property taxpayers too, he said.
Commissioner Marty Kiar said he didn't think it was legal for the county to spend tax dollars promoting a ballot question.
Indeed, the county can't advocate a yes or no vote, but can educate voters, county attorney Joni Armstrong Coffey said.
"Providing information in a positive way is not campaigning for something?" Kiar asked.
"It's a perpetual question," responded Coffey, saying she'd review materials before they're sent out.
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