Miami-Dade County

Miami-Dade’s toll board cuts staff as new Florida law demands 5% drop in tolls

Eastbound traffic on the Dolphin Expressway on a summer morning.
Eastbound traffic on the Dolphin Expressway on a summer morning. EL NUEVO HERALD

Miami-Dade’s toll board is cutting costs and shedding staff as it faces a new state law demanding both lower fees for motorists and that some toll revenue be spent on county transit projects.

The leader of the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority said the cuts aren’t related to the legislation Gov. Rick Scott signed into law this week that seeks to impose a 5 percent cut in tolls charged most motorists. The law allows toll boards to skip the rate decrease if a cut violates lending agreements, and the Miami-Dade authority contends it falls into that category.

But as the toll board faces a growing political backlash against tolls and elected leaders want toll revenue for Miami-Dade’s cash-strapped transit system, an agency famous for flowing in money is trimming costs.

The toll board, best known as MDX, has already laid off seven people this month from a headquarters staff of about 20, according to Chairman Louis Martinez. The spending plan for the budget year that begins July 1 includes an 8 percent cut in the toll-operations division and a 10 percent cut in administration.

Under the law taking effect July 1, state toll boards must reduce tolls at least 5 percent for all SunPass users, which make up about 80 percent of MDX motorists. The new law also would make it harder for MDX and other state toll boards to raise fees in the future. One provision bars putting new tolling stations within five miles of each other, and another requires a two-thirds majority to increase rates, rather than the existing requirement of a majority vote.

“I believe this is a great first step toward making sure tolls don’t get to the point where it’s essentially becoming an abusive tax,” said Rep. Bryan Avila, R-Hialeah, sponsor of the bill that Scott signed Monday. “There’s more than enough agreement in our community that tolls have to gotten to the point where [they] have become excessive.”

Despite MDX’s targeted budget cuts, overall spending is still slated to increase 2 percent in 2018 — thanks mainly to higher debt expenses and more maintenance costs. And the agency expects a record toll collection of $235 million for the five expressways it manages — Airport, Dolphin, Don Shula, Gratigny and Snapper Creek. Miami-Dade leaders want MDX to contribute millions to the county’s new SMART transit plan, which contemplates a new rail line running parallel to the Dolphin.

Though the new law calls for the toll reductions to start Saturday, MDX leaders see an escape route from the legislation’s requirements. The law includes a provision sparing toll boards from mandatory fee reductions if the change would violate lending agreements with bond holders.

Louis Martinez, MDX’s outgoing chairman, said the agency’s lawyers are asking the Attorney General’s Office to weigh in on the exemption question. He said credit agencies are concerned enough about the law’s prospects that MDX will probably face a downgrade in its credit ratings.

Javier Rodriguez, the MDX director, said bond agreements spell out that only the board can set toll rates on the expressways while the new law gives lawmakers a say on what motorists are charged. “The issue is about who makes that decision,” he said.

Should MDX fail in its effort to shield itself from the new law’s provisions, it could be the end of the MDX rebate program in 2018.

The bill requires the toll board to turn over surplus cash for use in county bus and rail projects. That’s the same pool of money used to fund the MDX rebate program, which last year refunded 30 percent of tolls paid by enrolled motorists who racked up at least $100 worth of fees. It paid out about $5.5 million in all — less than half of what a flat 5 percent reduction in toll rates would bring.

The average rebate check was $100 last year, according to an MDX release. A round trip the full length of the Dolphin costs $4.80, so a 5 percent cut would save a motorist 24 cents per day.

“We created a rewards program to help those that pay the most,” Martinez said. Replacing that with a 5 percent cut across the board, he said, dilutes the relief for motorists. “They’re not going to notice it,” he said.