Miami-Dade County

MDX overhaul plan gains ground

Rep. Jeanette Nuñez, R-Miami
Rep. Jeanette Nuñez, R-Miami The Associated Press

The Miami-Dade Expressway Authority’s recent pledge not to hike tolls hasn’t stopped state lawmakers from attempting to restructure the agency and impose tougher ethics regulations.

State. Rep. Jeanette Nuñez, R-Miami, and Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, are pushing legislative proposals that would shrink the MDX board from 13 members to nine. The bills (HB 989/SB 1276) would also prohibit anyone who has represented or done business with a government agency over the past decade from being appointed to the board.

“There is a group of board members who do not represent my constituents, and they have the authority to vote routinely for toll increases,” Flores said, adding that some residents of her district pay more than $50 in tolls each week to get to work.

The Senate version of the bill is scheduled for a hearing Tuesday before the Ethics and Elections Committee. Its counterpart in the House has just one more committee stop before it can be considered on the floor.

Nuñez sponsored a similar proposal last year, after the MDX board defied opponents and raised tolls on the busy Dolphin Expressway. But the bill met resistance from the Miami-Dade County Commission and several key state lawmakers, and failed to make it across the finish line.

Nuñez said she filed a new MDX bill because the board is still too big.

“More board members does not equate to better board members,” Nuñez said, pointing out that the board that governs Jackson Health System has been much more efficient since shrinking from 17 members to seven in 2012.

“Look at the Osceola and Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authorities,” she added. “None of them have more than nine members.”

The Miami-Dade Expressway Authority was created by the state and county in 1994. It operates the Airport, Dolphin, Don Shula, Gratigny and Snapper Creek expressways, all of which charge tolls.

There are currently 13 members on the board, seven of whom are appointed by the county commission and five of whom are appointed by the governor. The Florida Department of Transportation’s district secretary also serves as a voting member.

Under the proposed legislation, the commission and governor would each appoint four members. The district secretary would remain on the board.

The proposal also includes a provision that would require the immediate termination of any MDX board member who violates the ethics rules or fails to file a financial disclosure form. It is aimed at MDX member Robert Holland, who has been pursued by the state ethics commission for repeatedly ignoring the financial disclosure law.

“Imagine if you or I did that, what would happen,” Flores told her colleagues while making a pitch for the bill earlier this month.

This year’s plan is far less controversial than last year’s. Unlike the 2014 bill, what is currently under consideration would not make the agency’s bonding authority less certain, or require the county commission to sign off on any toll hikes.

It has the support of Miami-Dade County Commissioner Juan Carlos Zapata ,a former state representative.

“I think a smaller board will work better,” Zapata recently told the Senate Transportation Committee. “We need better decision making and more sensitivity to the needs of the residents.”

But there has also been some opposition.

Assistant Miami-Dade County Attorney Jess McCarty raised concerns about the proposed makeup of the board, saying it would shift power from the commission, which currently appoints a majority of MDX members, to the state.

MDX lobbyist Fausto Gomez noted that state law already prohibits lobbyists from serving on expressway authority boards, and called the proposed 10-year waiting period “excessive.”

“Why single out an expressway authority that is ranked the best expressway authority in Florida and is keeping the faith with the investment you all made in Miami-Dade County?” he asked a Senate panel.

Both Nuñez and Flores have said they are willing to find a compromise on the makeup of the board. And Nuñez has said she is “looking at reducing it from 10 [years].”

The Miami-Dade Expressway Authority has been the subject of intense criticism since increasing highway tolls by $52 million last year. Board members said the increases were necessary to ensure all motorists paid an equal share of the tolls.

Last week, the board promised not to raise tolls again before 2019, and said all future MDX expansion projects would be paid for by their own tolls.

Contact Kathleen McGrory at kmcgrory@MiamiHerald.com.

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