Miami-Dade County

Toll money is funding the campaign to win Miami-Dade approval of the 836 extension

Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez is urging the extension of the 836 expressway, pictured here, as a way to provide commuters with a speedier way to get out of West Kendall than the local streets currently used to get to the east-west toll road.
Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez is urging the extension of the 836 expressway, pictured here, as a way to provide commuters with a speedier way to get out of West Kendall than the local streets currently used to get to the east-west toll road. EL NUEVO HERALD

When the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority asked county commissioners in June to approve a new toll road into West Kendall, the independent agency delivered to the board’s clerk cardboard boxes with thousands of postcards from residents who supported the 14-mile extension of the existing 836 expressway.

“MDX sent out 20,000 cards,” said County Mayor Carlos Gimenez, the leading public advocate for the proposed $1 billion “Kendall Parkway” expressway project by the toll agency where he serves as chairman of the board. “It has received 5,000 support cards from households. And only 20 cards in opposition.”

Gimenez didn’t mention why the mail-in results might have been so lopsided: The 20,000 cards printed using MDX toll funds offered respondents only the option to support the expressway. A county spokeswoman explained later that the stray dissenters scratched out the “Let the County Commission Know You Support the Kendall Parkway” heading, wrote their own messages on the cards, and mailed those in.

MDX produced three mailer campaigns ahead of that June vote, sending out about 50,000 cards each time. The total cost was roughly $125,000, according to an email from the agency Friday night.

Before Friday, MDX hadn’t revealed the costs of its advocacy campaign. A final vote by the Miami-Dade County Commission is scheduled for Sept. 27. The environmental group Friends of the Everglades this week filed a lawsuit seeking the public records it requested in June to reveal those expenses, as well as shed more light on the effort to win commission approval of the controversial highway extension. The Miami Herald made a similar request in June.

The approval process of the extension is complicated, since it involves two separate government entities with some overlap in membership. The MDX’s only source of revenue is tolls charged on its six highways, and the rates are set by its board of directors.

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One of the cards Miami-Dade’s toll agency sent to residents asking them to support the proposed 836 extension.

The County Commission appoints five of the nine seats on the toll board. In 2017, the commission broke with tradition and appointed one of its own to the board, Miami-Dade Commissioner Audrey Edmonson, as well as naming Gimenez to a seat.

Gimenez has used his time on the board to champion the 836 extension, and this year his fellow directors elected him MDX chairman. He also oversees the county department, Regulatory and Economic Resources, reviewing MDX’s application to extend the 836 into West Kendall.

Miami-Dade has no control over MDX spending or construction decisions. But the proposed 836 extension crosses the county’s Urban Development Boundary, a building restriction aimed at protecting the Everglades to the west.

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The Miami-Dade Expressway Authority wants to build a 14-mile extension of State Road 836 into West Kendall. The southwest extension would be called the Kendall Parkway. MIAMI HERALD FILE

Environmental groups oppose the project, saying it endangers efforts by the federal government to protect a buffer between development and the Everglades. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican from West Miami, raised similar concerns in an Aug. 7 statement.

West Kendall residents largely support the project, saying it will provide relief from traffic-clogged local streets. MDX and county officials argue the project poses no environmental risks, and that the plan accommodates existing Everglades efforts.

An MDX spokeswoman on Friday said the agency has delivered all of the relevant documents requested by the Friends of the Everglades and its lawyer, Paul Schwiep. The group requested a broad collection of records, including correspondence between the agency and environmental regulators and the federal officials supervising Everglades restoration.

Tere Garcia, a communications consultant working for MDX, said the dispute centers around Schwiep’s ongoing demands for written communication between Gimenez and MDX staff, including director Javier Rodriguez. Garcia said the two communicate only at face-to-face meetings, and do not email or text each other.

“This issue is he has asked for something that doesn’t exist,” Garcia said.

On June 22, Schwiep sent MDX a records request seeking documents related to the 836 proposal. The suit claims the agency has provided some documents, but no internal emails or text messages.

In correspondence included in the Friends of the Everglades suit, MDX said a promotional video created to promote the extension — which the agency branded the “Kendall Parkway” — cost about $30,000 to produce.

The video begins with a view of a Miami Beach sunrise. “Good morning, Miami,” the narrator says. “Well, maybe on the beach it’s a beautiful morning. But — go west.” Then the video switches to testimonials from drivers complaining about traffic congestion in the western suburbs, which aren’t served by the county’s Metrorail system.

“And when it’s happy hour here,” the video continues, flashing scenes of what could be a Miami bar before switching back to gridlocked suburban streets, “it’s not so happy here.”

The video captures the main selling point of the campaign: that residents of West Kendall deserve the expressway as a chance for speedier commutes, particularly since residents have been paying the taxes that fund a county transit system that offers the region buses but not trains.

An Gimenez spokeswoman referred questions on the promotional campaign to MDX, but noted the toll agency regularly produces promotional videos for its projects.

Schwiep, a lawyer with Coffey Burlington in Coconut Grove and a member of the board that oversees the county’s transportation tax, said the Everglades group sought the promotional budget as a way to shed light on the one-sided nature of the public outreach. He pointed to the cards MDX mailed out that offered recipients only the option to support the project.

“That’s the way they do it in Cuba,” he said. “You only give people one option.”

Laura Reynolds, a consultant representing Friends of the Everglades, argued MDX’s slow pace in releasing documents was another reason to question the agency’s rush to get county approval of the project this fall. “I don’t think we have enough information,” she said. “I think commissioners need to delay this, and demand information from MDX.”