March 20, 2013

Toll hike on state roads 836 and 112 might not be final

The vote to increase the tolls was so close the head of the expressway authority said the agency may revisit the issue.

A late vote Tuesday approving toll increases on State Roads 836 and 112 may be tentative.

Miami-Dade Expressway Authority (MDX) chairman Maurice Ferre said he was so distressed by the close 7-6 vote that it was possible the 13-member board may revisit the issue.

Ferre said he did not want to leave the impression of a “divided board” as the 3 1/2-hour meeting came to an end at MDX headquarters near Miami International Airport.

Ferre’s comments came shortly after board members voted, and moments after board member Maritza Gutierrez tried unsuccessfully to amend the plan with a proposal that would have set toll rates at a lower level than what was approved.

The vote was the culmination of a contentious meeting in which about two dozen speakers pleaded with MDX board members to delay or eliminate the toll increase.

“All I hear is more tolls, more concrete and more cars,” said Cutler Bay Mayor Edward MacDougall, one of the speakers who addressed the MDX board.

Carlos Garcia, co-founder of the anti-toll group, voiced the general feeling of people who spoke, urging board members to delay the increase.

“Please hold off,” said Garcia, who like other group members wore a T-shirt with signs saying “Enough is Enough.”

Once the public hearing ended, it was clear that not all board members agreed with raising the tolls. At least one member mentioned the possibility of delaying the vote. But Gutierrez’s proposal to amend the plan was the only serious move to modify the increase.

Under the approved plan, full-fledged electronic tolling will be activated on 836 and 112 in the summer of 2014. Once that happens tolls will increase because cash will no longer be accepted and drivers will pay a toll regardless of where they enter or leave the road, or which direction they’re heading. Many drivers now avoid paying a toll because they exit before a toll plaza.

Currently, a driver traveling the full length of the 836 expressway from Northwest 137th Avenue east to Interstate 95 pays $2.

Once the new rates take effect, drivers traveling either eastbound or westbound at any point on the expressway will pay a toll because there will be no more toll plazas and toll collection will occur electronically at strategic points.

Under the newly approved rates, a driver traveling the entire length of 836 either eastbound or westbound will pay $2.40.

If there is no reconsideration of Tuesday’s action, the vote gives the green light to activation of the full-fledged electronic toll collection system on the two busy roads and removal of the toll plazas where cash is now accepted.

Tolls will be collected electronically via gantries that will be strategically placed at various points along the expressways. The gantries hold equipment that reads signals from SunPass devices in vehicles and cameras to snap pictures of tags on vehicles that do not carry SunPass.

Owners of vehicles without SunPass receive bills in the mail under the so-called Toll by Plate program.

Activation of all-electronic tolling on 836 and 112 next year will complete MDX’s ambitious program to operate all its five expressways without cash tolls.

State Road 874 and the Gratigny Parkway went electronic in 2010, as did Snapper Creek, which previously did not charge tolls.

MDX officials said the reason for the conversion to all-electronic tolling is to make sure that all drivers pay a toll.

MDX says it relies exclusively on toll revenue to operate, maintain and overhaul its roads because it does not receive gas tax revenue or local, federal or state funds. Thus, the more tolls drivers pay, the higher the revenue.

“Only 55 percent of drivers maintain the system today, and the other 45 percent are contributing to the congestion, but not the improvements,” said Cindy Polo, an MDX spokeswoman.

Ferre and other board members who voted for the increase asked the MDX staff to prepare a report to determine how Gutierrez’s proposal would affect plans for future road improvements.

Under Gutierrez’s proposal, electronic toll collection on both eastbound and westbound 836 and 112 would still take place, but the toll rate would be lower than what the board approved Tuesday.

MDX officials said increased toll revenue under the approved plan will be leveraged through bond sales to secure up to $479 million for roadway improvements. These officials said the Gutierrez plan would only generate about $360 million.

“We need an assessment report,” said Ferre.

The bulk of the funds, said Polo, are intended for 836 improvements and a ramp connector to complete the reconstruction of 874.

Key improvements on 836 include the overhaul of interchanges, beyond the one already being rebuilt at the Palmetto Expressway. The interchanges to be modified will stretch from 87th Avenue east to 27th Avenue.

MDX plans to modify the interchanges by placing all exit ramps on the right to reduce congestion. At present, some of the exit ramps at some key locations, such as Le Jeune Road near Miami International Airport, are on the left.

This causes congestion because it forces commuters on the right to cut off drivers on the left as they zip across several lanes to get to the exit ramp.

In addition, workers will widen the road with a view to having four through-lanes to further reducing congestion caused by weaving at exit and entrance ramps.

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