Why MDX tolls should increase

On March 19, the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority (MDX) passed, by a vote of 7 to 6, a series of toll increases for 2014, on state roads 836/ Dolphin Expressway and 112/Airport Expressway. We also adopted toll policies that include future adjustments in the consumer price index beginning in fiscal year 2018 and a discount program.

One MDX board member recommended a smaller toll increase of 60 cents on SR 836, rather than the 70 cents proposed by the committee. The difference would reduce MDX’s revenue by a projected $19 million a year.

As chair of MDX, I was disappointed by the close vote. MDX has been working on implementing Open Road Tolling (ORT) for more than six years.

Since I also serve on the Florida Transportation Commission (FTC), I am keenly aware of how inadequate Florida’s funding has been in meeting our state transportation needs. Florida gas-tax income has been falling for years. Since 2006, the Florida Revenue Estimating Conference has decreased transportation revenue receipts by $8.3 billion. Because our Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) operates on a cash flow commitment basis, FDOT has deferred or deleted $11.6 billion in projects. For example, if it were not for MDX’s contribution of $209 million to FDOT’s $600 million reconstruction to the SR 836/ SR 826 interchange, west of Miami International Airport, this important project would have been further delayed.

In FDOT’s five-year plan (through 2018) the projected federal aid to Florida will be $10.766 billion, 28.8 percent of FDOT’s total. Miami-Dade County’s share of FDOT’s five-year plan will be $3.12 billion, of which $1.9 billion will be new work. So, through 2018, the county can look forward to only four major area improvements.

In 2007, MDX did a strategic plan study to define our needs. For MDX’s expressways, $8 billion worth of needs was identified. The toll increases approved on March 19 will hopefully raise $550 million, with some of the lowest interest rates in U.S. history.

MDX will wisely leverage this money over the next five years to improve throughput by reducing congestion on SR 836 and SR 112. In conjunction with FDOT, this may include the I-395/I-95 intersection in downtown Miami, which the feds claim is one of the most dangerous highway interchanges in America.

Roads and transit are not free. Florida and other states are on a new, unavoidable transportation approach — the user fee. The difference between a toll and a tax is that in the latter you have no choice. When MDX finishes upgrading our roads, the 1.25 million people in west and southwest sections of the county will have a choice to use various local roads or to use a MDX expressway and cut travel time by an average of 30 percent, for a fee.

The Texas A&M Transportation Institute, which keeps track of national congestion, says that each resident in Miami-Dade County spends $800 a year, because of congestion. MDX’s SR 836/ Dolphin Expressway is the backbone of Miami-Dade County. In fact, 80 percent of all transactions —business, professional and personal — are done within 15 minutes of SR 836. With all the proposed improvements to SR 836, a driver traveling this expressway will save time and money. These savings amount to more than the additional revenue that MDX will collect with these proposed 2014 tolls.

On March 22, MDX board member Rick Rodriguez Piña wrote an excellent Other Views article in The Miami Herald. He states that the proposed $200 million public investment in Dolphin Stadium must be judged by a Shark Tank test — return on investment.

Well, MDX owns its roads and our return on investment would be: more throughput on SR 836 and SR 112, which will return many more hundreds of millions over the life of the financed bonds; drivers from the southwestern part of the county will save time commuting; most important, the number of lives lost and many accidents occuring will be reduced.

Last week, MDX refinanced $300 million of old bonds for $30 million in savings, and the bond sale was oversubscribed six times. How’s that for a Shark Tank test?

Progress will alway be painful, until we look back with the satisfaction that MDX helped in the economic development of Miami-Dade County. Mayor Carlos Gimenez was correct in his 2013 State of the County address: “We need a more state-of-the-art transportation plan.” MDX takes its mission seriously.

Maurice Ferre is chair of MDX, the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority.

Read more Other Views stories from the Miami Herald

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