Toll plazas on the Dolphin and Airport expressways would be bulldozed and tolls could rise if the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority decides Tuesday to shift to all-electronic tolling on those roads.
The planned change has prompted strong opposition from some commuters and local politicians, but it appears likely to be approved.
Once all-electronic toll collections begin next year on these expressways, also known as state roads 836 and 112, everyone using them would pay a toll. The toll plazas would be replaced by overhead gantries on the ramps and roads that will collect tolls from SunPass-equipped vehicles and generate collection letters to non-SunPass drivers.
“That way, everyone who gets on the highway pays their share,” said MDX Executive Director Javier Rodríguez.
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On Tuesday, MDX board members will vote on a new basic toll rate, either 65 or 70 cents per vehicle. Though that sounds like a reduction from the current SunPass rate of $1 per vehicle at the main toll plazas, it will amount to an increase in most cases since drivers will pay a toll no matter where they enter or exit the expressways.
“Only 55 percent of drivers maintain the system today, and the other 45 percent are contributing to the congestion, but not the improvements [because they pay no tolls],” said MDX spokeswoman Cindy Polo.
Depending on the rates that are set, MDX will generate additional toll revenue of between $47 million and $53 million.
The agency plans to leverage that amount to more than $400 million by selling bonds.
“The bulk of the funds are intended for 836 improvements as well as for a ramp connector that will be the final piece of the reconstruction and expansion of a brand new State Road 874,” Polo said.
In 2010, MDX converted State Roads 874, 878 and 924 to full-fledged electronic tolling.
The principal improvements on 836 include the overhaul of interchanges — besides the one at with State Road 826, the Palmetto Expressway, whose reconstruction is underway — from 87th Avenue east to 27th Avenue.
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 forces many commuters on the right to cut off drivers on the left as they force their way to the exit.
In addition, MDX hopes to widen the road to four through lanes in each direction to reduce congestion.
At least one county commissioner thinks MDX is not doing the right thing.
“I urge you to delay this decision until you have considered every other possible alternative,” Commissioner Xavier Suarez wrote in a letter last week to MDX board members.
Anti-toll activists want MDX to drop the toll increase plan — and if that fails they want to explore the possibility of eliminating the agency altogether.
Carlos García, co-founder of RollBackTolls.com, said that besides raising tolls for SunPass users, MDX also plans to increase the tolls paid by drivers who do not have SunPass.
Since cash would no longer be accepted, drivers without a SunPass transponder will receive bills in the mail under a system called Toll-by-Plate. Cameras mounted on the gantries alongside electronic collection equipment take pictures of license plates on vehicles without a SunPass.
García said that MDX also plans to increase tolls further by linking them to the Consumer Price Index.
“This is a triple whammy facing commuters,” he said.
Polo, the MDX spokeswoman, said MDX board members are considering applying CPI to the tolls, but not until fiscal year 2018. Polo also said that starting July 1, the base Toll-by-Plate rate will be twice the SunPass rate, but at the same time the administrative fee will be eliminated. Polo said only 8 percent of drivers use Toll-by-Plate.
MDX has no plans to delay the vote, and it is unlikely that any laws will be passed any time soon to dismantle the agency.
Tuesday’s public hearing and board meeting is scheduled for 4 p.m. at MDX headquarters, 3790 NW 21st St. For additional information about the meeting and project plans, visit MDX’s website at mdxway.com.