Miami-Dade County

Those tolls you pay on Miami’s highways could come to an end if this bill passes

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Some of the busiest — and priciest — highways in Miami could eventually become freeways in more than one sense if two Miami lawmakers are successful in pushing legislation to abolish the agency that oversees five county toll roads.

State Rep. Brian Avila on Tuesday filed a bill in the Florida House that would dissolve the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority, which levies tolls on the Gratigny Parkway and the Airport, Dolphin, Shula and Snapper Creek expressways. Under the legislation, the Florida Department of Transportation would absorb the authority, commonly known as MDX, and the tolls levied on the agency’s five highways would be phased out once all the related debt is paid.

An MDX spokeswoman said the authority’s bond holders are scheduled to be paid in full in 2045. Avila said the legislation is not intended to impede the authority’s planned Kendall Parkway, a controversial $1 billion extension of the Dolphin planned along the edge of the Everglades in order to alleviate traffic in heavily congested southwest Dade.

The proposal is part of a sweeping omnibus bill that would also change the makeup of Miami-Dade’s regional transportation planning organization and — as a direct result of the pedestrian bridge collapse at Florida International University last year — require that the state’s transportation department approve designs for projects on or over state roads. Additionally, starting in 2022, the bill would force counties to use transportation surtax money exclusively on fixed rail and busways, giving the county three years to phase out the money it uses from the 2002 half-penny referendum to subsidize operations.

“I’ve given them the opportunity to get their house in order,” said Avila, R-Hialeah.

Sure to spark push-back from Miami-Dade County and MDX, the legislation is a continuation of a long-running feud over tolls and the use of the county’s half-penny tax, which has been used to help pay operational costs despite being sold to voters with the promise of expanded Metrorail corridors and expanded bus service.

Two years ago, Avila and now-Lieutenant Governor Jeanette Nuñez pushed a bill that forced MDX to lower its tolls by 5 percent only to watch the authority delay, and then say it could no longer afford a program to give rebates to frequently tolled motorists. Last year, Avila sponsored a bill that, had it not died in the Senate, would have phased out the county’s use of half-penny money on operational expenses.

This year, Avila is the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, giving him sway over issues of taxation in the lower chamber. Sen. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, a former state representative who is carrying the legislation in the Senate, said Miami’s legislative delegation has been trying to rein in the county’s tolling and spending for years.

“MDX has grown into a monster of its own,” Diaz said, describing the authority as an entity that exists in order to continue existing. “This is a result of continued frustration, not just of the delegation but our constituents.”

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, the chairman of the MDX board, says he plans to meet soon with Avila and Diaz.

“From what we’ve seen, this leaves us concerned,” Gimenez said.

Last year, according to its own financial statements, MDX brought in $260 million in revenue, almost all of it from tolls and fees. The authority was created by the state in 1993 as a means to keep Miami tax dollars in the area in support of county highways, but critics now counter that the authority has skewed priorities and incentivizes road expansions instead of planning and spending on mass transit.

The proposed legislation does not allow the state to issue new tolls on the highways once the MDX tolls expire. It requires that the state spend tax money locally, and limits new surtax initiatives after 2022 to a lifespan of 20 years.

“I feel so strongly that MDX has become more of a financial burden than an actual benefit to the community,” said Avila. “They don’t have the public’s best interests at heart.”

Miami Herald reporter Douglas Hanks contributed to this report.