Faced with stinging criticism from motorists over a $52 million increase in highway tolls last year, the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority has promised not to raise tolls again before 2019.
The promise was wrapped into a resolution that also tied toll increases to the Consumer Price Index and declared that all future MDX expansions must pay for themselves with their own tolls. Introduced by MDX member Maritza Gutierrez, the resolution encountered little opposition and passed 12-1, with only former county commissioner Pepe Cancio voting against it.
“Most of these things were already stated policy on our various projects, but this combines them” and formalizes them, said MDX spokesman Mario Diaz.
Whether it will quiet complaints about last year’s toll increase, which triggered a wave of online petitions and roadside protests, remains to be seen.
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That increase was billed mostly as an attempt to close loopholes in the system, created by haphazard location of toll plazas, that allowed canny drivers to use MDX for free. A car traveling west on State Road 836 from downtown to 87th Avenue, nearly seven miles, paid nothing under the old system.
But the new system also imposed tolls on both directions of all MDX highways, instead of just one way, so many commuters found their bills doubled. Complaints that MDX was creating a lush road-building empire were common.
Tuesday’s resolution won’t lead to any refunds; the $52 million a year in new revenue is already committed to a $900 million plan to streamline 836, expand the Gratigny Parkway west to the Florida Turnpike and extend State Road 874 to Southwest 128th Street.
MDX officials hope, however, that forcing future projects to be self-sustaining — for example, an expansion of 836 farther west would have to be paid for by tolls on drivers traveling that segment of the highway, rather than increasing the price of driving on the eastern edge — and tying other increases to inflation will make them seem less arbitrary.
Wednesday’s resolution also includes a pledge that MDX will not embark on any roadbuilding projects if the government with jurisdiction over the area (Miami-Dade County or a city council) objects, creating a democratic check on an agency that’s governed by appointees who don’t answer directly to voters.
“We’re not sitting on a lot of cash over here,” Diaz said. “Every penny we take in is spent on building, maintaining and repairing our expressways. And most of it is pumped right back into the local economy.” The $900 million plan will create 10,000 jobs, he said, in everything from construction to accounting.
At the same time they’re trying to quiet criticism over last year’s toll increase, MDX officials say it’s been overblown by journalists and social-media complaints. They especially take issue with claims that tolls are so expensive that traffic is moving off MDX highways and back onto city streets.
“Our studies show traffic on 836 is up 6 percent since the new tolls went into effect in November,” Diaz said. “We’ve had some drop-off of traffic that just traveled to the next exit — people who, say, go from Red Road to LeJeune. But overall, traffic is up 6 percent. I don’t see how anybody can say we’re forced anybody off the highway.”