Miami-Dade’s mayor would seize the chairmanship of the county’s controversial toll authority under a Tallahassee proposal that is part of a larger fight over how Miami-Dade makes decisions on transportation funding.
Mayor Carlos Gimenez said Thursday he backs the idea of becoming chairman of the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority, a panel better known as the MDX and best known for recent toll expansions on the county’s main east-west highway. Legislation sponsored by Sen. Anitere Flores, a Republican and chair of the Miami-Dade delegation, would shuffle membership of the authority, which uses toll revenue for highway construction throughout Miami-Dade.
“I think it needs some accountability,” Gimenez said of MDX during a County Hall interview Thursday. “My presence would bring the MDX more into the sunshine.”
As of Thursday night, the MDX plan appeared stalled in Tallahassee as Flores hit opposition when she tried to add language to a bill involving the Central Florida Expressway Authority. She said she would explore other ways to get the legislation onto the Senate floor for a vote. The effort is the latest twist in a legislative session that has local state lawmakers trying to change the make-up of county transportation boards.
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The county’s Metropolitan Planning Organization, which maps out spending priorities for federally-funded transportation projects, on Thursday formally objected to proposed state legislation that would sharply reduce the number of county commissioners who serve on the board.
Sponsored by Miami Rep. Jeanette Nuñez, the proposal by the Republican lawmaker so rankled the commission that one commissioner this week briefly threatened to pull funding of a county staffer that runs the Miami-Dade delegation office while the Legislature is in session.
“We are paying for staff for a delegation that doesn’t even support us,” Commissioner Audrey Edmonson said at Tuesday’s county commission meeting.
As one of 13 county commissioners, Edmonson also gets an automatic seat on the 23-member MPO. The Nuñez amendment would shrink the panel to 14 members, with the Miami-Dade mayor getting a seat for the first time but county commissioners losing eight slots. The county’s six largest cities would keep their seats, as would the county school system and the MDX. But the legislation would drop an at-large municipal seat and a slot reserved for a civilian from the suburbs.
Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine and Francis Suarez, a Miami city commissioner, are their cities’ representatives on the MPO, and they supported the legislation. That led to a series of tense exchanges at the MPO meeting as county commissioners mostly objected to the end-run and city leaders urged MPO reform given Miami-Dade’s worsening gridlock.
“I think it’s important that members of the MPO respect the MPO,” said County Commissioner Dennis Moss. Mayor Levine said later: “I’m sorry you feel I went and told our parents on us.” Levine and Suarez were on the losing side of a 14-4 vote by the MPO to oppose the membership change.
The MPO language passed the House as part of a large transportation bill. Sen. René Garcia, a Miami-Dade Republican, said Thursday he hoped to attach the MPO amendment onto a Senate bill heading for passage.
Both the MPO and MDX legislation would give Gimenez prominent roles on boards overseeing millions in transportation dollars as he heads into a 2016 reelection season where transit issues are getting more political attention.
The MDX oversees the county’s toll roads, and last fall extended tolling on the Dolphin Expressway in a move that critics trashed as “Tollmaggedon.” Appointed by the county commission and governor, the 13-member MDX board roster currently lists one elected official — a city councilwoman from Aventura. The proposed legislation would shrink the board to 11, while transferring the chairmanship from an appointed member (currently Maritza Gutiérrez) to Miami-Dade’s mayor. The bill also would ban appointments of members who lobby or work for firms with financial ties to MDX projects.
Gutiérrez dismissed the plan as a move toward “monarchy” and called the legislation a misguided attempt to assuage motorist outrage over higher tolls. “I understand that people were upset because tolls increased, but no one has done anything about that,” said Gutiérrez, president of Creative Ideas Advertising in Miami. “There’s a delicate balance between balance and control, and I don’t see it in this plan.”
Sen. Flores said Mayor Gimenez has been active in requesting changes in the MDX legislation, which she said drew concerns from county commissioners as well. Flores touted the idea of having a countywide elected official running the board. “He would have direct accountability to the voters,” she said.
Maurice Ferré, a former Miami mayor and current MDX member, said he saw problems from inserting the county mayor into a board with an active committee system meeting every 30 days.
“Is the mayor of Miami-Dade County really going to spend the amount of time the MDX requires?” he asked.
Miami Herald staff writer Glenn Garvin contributed to this report.