Tolls on Miami-Dade expressways could drop 5 percent under legislation awaiting Gov. Rick Scott’s signature, and that might mean the end of yearly rebate checks for the county’s biggest toll payers.
The law backed by Miami-Dade legislators drew praise from anti-toll activists, since it mandates lower toll rates on five expressways and requires the county’s toll authority to surrender parts of it vast cash coffers for use on rail and bus projects.
“When someone takes a child to school or goes to work, it shouldn’t cost them $10 a day,” said Rep. Bryan Avila, R-Hialeah, who sponsored the bill passed May 5. Tolls “are certainly becoming a financial burden on the community as a whole.”
[How much did the 2014 expansion of tolling on the MDX system cost you? Check out our Toll Calculator.]
With the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority (MDX) taking in about $235 million in toll revenue last year, a 5 percent cut in tolls would mean nearly $12 million in relief for the roughly 300,000 motorists who use the system each month. The MDX expressways are the Airport, Dolphin, Don Shula, Gratigny and Snapper Creek expressways.
Loopholes in the law might exempt the MDX from the toll cutbacks, if it can prove the reductions would void certain bond agreements with the lenders. But the provisions have MDX leaders bracing for big changes, including the end of the authority’s annual peace offering to its biggest toll payers.
After backlash over a 2014 expansion of tolls on the Airport and Dolphin expressways that nearly doubled toll revenue within two years, MDX launched a rebate program for motorists paying more than $100 in a single year. The program paid out $5.5 million in December, with an average rebate check of about $100.
The money comes from dollars MDX’s board of county and state appointees declares surplus. That’s the same pool of money targeted by Avila’s bill for transit projects. Louis Martinez, the lawyer who serves as MDX’s chairman, said the toll board would likely be forced to scratch the rebate program if the law gets enacted.
“Nobody wants to pay tolls,” he said. “But it just seems more logical to help the people who use the roads more.”
Scott hasn’t said whether he plans to sign the bill. It would impose the toll cuts on expressways statewide, as well as require the state’s highway system to refund users of tolled “express” lanes if their average speed drops below 40 miles per hour.
It’s not clear what the law would actually mean for MDX, since the language waives the toll cuts if they would violate agreements authorities made with lenders in selling bonds. On March 10, an MDX official wrote a state legislative committee to say the proposed law violates the agency’s bond agreements and would result in a credit downgrade for the toll system.
“The Bill impairs the Authority’s ability to pay for projects, causing projects not to be cost feasible,” wrote Marie Schafer, MDX”s chief financial officer.
Much of MDX’s concern centers on a provision barring the agency from installing toll facilities within five miles of each other on roads built after July 1, 2017. That restriction would have cost the current system millions of dollars if it had been in effect in 2014 before the toll expansion. One five-mile stretch of the Dolphin, for example, now has two tolling spots. While those toll stations would not be affected, future road projects could be.
A recent Moody’s report noted MDX has more than 1,500 days worth of cash on hand — essentially meaning it could stop collecting money and pay operating expenses for about four years. While MDX says it needs cash reserves for future projects, some want the money liquidated to support Miami-Dade’s under-funded transit system, which relies on sales and property taxes.
“The question is whether someone comes in to tell [MDX] not to commit to any more projects,” said Xavier Suarez, a Miami-Dade commissioner.
Avila’s House Bill 1049 is the latest attempt to rein in MDX, which was established as a buffer between elected officials and the politically unpopular process of establishing tolls. But with toll rates inspiring so much ire from residents, elected officials are increasingly eager to get involved with the board and its decisions.
Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez recently secured one of the County Commission’s seats on the MDX board and might make a bid for MDX chairman when elections are held in June. He’s publicly advocated for the kind of toll rollback in the bill, saying motorists shouldn’t have to go through hoops to pay less.
“Mayor Gimenez would rather have maximum toll relief throughout the system,” spokesman Michael Hernández said.
Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, who backed Avila’s bill, said the rebates didn’t lessen anger about tolls for most drivers.
“A rebate is something that’s nice. But there might be some individuals who use the toll roads a lot, but not quite enough to get a rebate,” she said. “This is something to make sure everybody gets toll relief.”