Thursday, November 23, 2017

Toll battle leads to MDX shakeup bills


TALLAHASSEE — A local agency that defied opponents by setting new tolls for Miami-Dade's busy Dolphin Expressway is caught in the crosshairs of the Florida Legislature.

Two South Florida lawmakers want to reshape the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority, better known as MDX, and require the county commission to sign off on toll hikes.

The Senate version (SB 772) won the approval of the Senate Transportation Committee in a tense 6-4 vote on Thursday.

"We're trying to bring some control to these toll increases," said Sen. René García, the Hialeah Republican sponsoring the bill along with Republican Rep. Jeanette Nuñez of Miami.

But in seeking more expressway control, the bills filed by Garcia and Nuñez have caused the agency to delay road projects, said MDX's executive director, Javier Rodriguez.

MDX has held off on bidding a Dolphin Expressway road-widening project and is waiting to see the fate of the bill before seeking $560 million in bonds for new projects throughout the county.

On Monday, Rodriguez also informed the state that the agency might not be able to make an annual $25 million payment to the state for 836-826 interchange construction if the agency's bonding was interfered with.

Garcia and the Senate transportation committee watered the bill down Thursday and removed the provisions that made the agency's bonding authority less certain. The Senate bill also ensures that the Miami-Dade County Commission would continue to have a majority of appointees.

The House bill (HB 353), which has one more committee stop before it's heard on the House floor, gives Gov. Rick Scott a majority of appointees.

Last month, the county commission voted 9-3 to urge lawmakers to oppose the legislation, partly because it removes local control.

"Just like they don't want the federal government to constantly be meddling in their affairs, I would hope that they would also respect local government," Commissioner Dennis Moss said from the dais.

MDX, which was created by the state and county in 1994, operates five major highways and a total of 227 lane miles on the Airport, Dolphin, Don Shula, Gratigny and Snapper Creek expressways.

All charge tolls that go to the expressway authority to operate the system and fund new projects.

Unlike other expressway authorities in Florida, Miami-Dade's does not receive grant money or gas-tax funds from the state — and, as a result, has a great deal of independence in making future plans.

Last year, MDX faced stiff opposition from activists, along with some local elected officials and lawmakers, when it proposed a new tolling rate on the Dolphin.

At 70 cents, the rate will be lower than the $1 drivers are currently charged. But it represents an increase because all drivers will have to pay the toll electronically, instead of being able to avoid it by exiting the highway before toll plazas.

In a presentation to county commissioners last month, Rodriguez stressed that the new scheme would make tolls apply more equitably.

"It's a fair system," Rodriguez said, which would put MDX in line with other Florida agencies charging an average toll of 17 cents a mile.

But it's not always a well-run system. MDX's toll-by-plate collection system failed to bills thousands of motorists who don't have a SunPass transponder, NBC6 reported Wednesday. MDX plans to send bills, beginning April 15, to collect about $7.5 million in uncollected tolls.

The billing snafu aside, drivers have been fed up for years with seeing their commutes get longer and tolls get higher, said Commissioner Juan C. Zapata, who represents Southwest Miami-Dade.

The House proposal by Nuñez seeks to consolidate the MDX board by reducing the number of members from 13 to nine. The county commission would no longer have the power to appoint a majority of the members. Instead, the commission would select four and the governor would select four. The ninth member would be the local Florida Department of Transportation district secretary, also a gubernatorial appointee.

What's more, the proposal would require a super-majority of the county commission to approve toll-rate increases, instead of leaving that power solely in the hands of the MDX board.

Nuñez said that shrinking the board would be enable it to be more "more nimble," and dismissed concerns that the new configuration would limit local control.

"It's always going to be a local person," she said. "It is always going to be someone who is a Miami-Dade resident who is vetted, who meets the standards of what we consider to be an appropriate appointment."

Nuñez said she wasn't surprised by the opposition from the Miami-Dade Commission. "For obvious reasons, they don't want to have to address that issue," she said.

The Senate version looks somewhat different. García removed the provision requiring the county commission to sign off on toll increases on Thursday. And Sen. Gwen Margolis, D-Miami, added language allowing the board to keep its 13 members.

Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, a Miami Republican who helped create the expressway authority, supported the move. "It's really a local toll road that gets all of its money from local tolls collected by local residents," Diaz de la Portilla said. "I don't understand why we want to dilute local control, vision and mission in Miami-Dade County."

County and MDX leaders consider the latest versions of the legislation a vast improvement over earlier drafts that would have called off toll changes set to take effect this summer and banned MDX from borrowing money backed by future toll revenues.

That prohibition would have effectively scrapped the agency's $890 million work program, including a project to redo portions of the Dolphin Expressway between Red Road and Interstate 95.

"It's the end of MDX, obviously," agency board chairman Maurice Ferré told the county's Metropolitan Planning Organization in February.

By March, he reported that the agency had made "major headway" with legislators to soften the blow of the legislation.

But language in the House proposal would still create a problem for Ferré, because it would prohibit expressway authority members from serving on other transportation boards. Ferré is an appointee of Gov. Rick Scott on the Florida Transportation Commission.

A separate provision, prohibiting lobbyists from serving on the MDX board, would impact at least four of the 13 sitting members registered to lobby at County Hall.

Expressway authority members would have to disclose relationships with relatives or business associates who could benefit from roadway projects, as well as relationships with relatives who are lobbyists. That language would affect MDX Vice Chairwoman Maritza Gutierrez, who is married to prolific local lobbyist Armando Gutierrez.

The authority has come under fire in recent weeks. In February, Senate President Don Gaetz called for the removal of MDX board member Robert Holland, who repeatedly refused to file required financial disclosure forms. Holland later submitted the paperwork.

Then, in late March, longtime MDX board member Gonzalo Sanabria said he had resigned to protest the way the Scott campaign treated former co-finance chairman Mike Fernandez.

But a Scott spokesman told a different version of the events. He said Sanabria was not reappointed to the MDX Board because he had voted to raise tolls.

Sanabria said that made no sense.

"The turnpike enterprise, which is directly under the governor, has raised tolls three times and the I-95 express lanes have raised tolls as well," Sanabria said. "If the governor was really concerned about toll increases, he could have stopped those with a phone call."

Miami Herald staff writer Marc Caputo contributed to this report.

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