Miami-Dade County

GOP lawmakers want to dissolve MDX toll board. Florida’s governor is open to the fight.

Gov. Ron DeSantis, left, talks with Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez during a visit to Miami on Jan. 23, 2019. Gimenez serves as chairman of the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority, a toll board targeted by DeSantis’ lieutenant governor, Jeanette Nuñez.
Gov. Ron DeSantis, left, talks with Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez during a visit to Miami on Jan. 23, 2019. Gimenez serves as chairman of the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority, a toll board targeted by DeSantis’ lieutenant governor, Jeanette Nuñez. dhanks@miamiherald.com

With Republican lawmakers from Miami pushing to dissolve the county’s controversial toll board, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis declined to pick sides during a visit to the city Wednesday. But the new Republican governor pointed out that the woman he picked as his running mate led the fight against the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority, the toll board best known as the MDX.

“One of my best allies, my lieutenant governor, she’s had views on that,” DeSantis said of Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez, a former Miami lawmaker who led previous legislative crackdowns on the MDX, which runs five toll expressways in Miami-Dade. “There are obviously different sides to this. ... We’re going to get as much feedback as we can. I’m willing to listen to folks here.”

The governor’s remarks followed a meeting with local elected officials and representatives of transportation companies, and some panelists urged him to preserve the MDX as an independent agency. The MDX collects more than $200 million a year in tolls. That’s put the agency, and its board of county and state appointees, in the political whirlwind over the years.

Miami-Dade commissioners have pressed MDX to divert toll money into county transit projects. In 2017, Nuñez and other Miami Republicans passed legislation mandating MDX reduce tolls by 5 percent. The toll agency ignored the law, citing legal loopholes.

When Nuñez followed up last year with a law that would shake up the MDX board without toll reductions, the toll authority agreed to the 5-percent reduction. This week, a lawmaker who had helped Nuñez with the past MDX bills unveiled the toughest legislative attack yet on the agency.

The House bill by Rep. Bryan Avila, R-Hialeah, would dissolve the MDX and shift control of the Dolphin and the agency’s four other expressways to the state’s Transportation Department. Avila said he wanted tolls to continue only until current debt tied to the revenue stream was paid off — a 24-year timetable. “Essentially,” he said in an interview, “all of those toll gantries would go away.” Sen. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, is sponsoring a companion bill in the Florida Senate.

Late Wednesday, Nuñez issued a statement that did not address the latest MDX bill directly. “In my previous role as a legislator, I championed various proposals to provide toll relief, transparency and accountability,” the statement said. She said the administration is focused on reducing traffic and improving safety on the state’s roads. “We will also hold agencies accountable when they are not acting in the best interest of Florida’s residents.”

MDX backers reject the bill as misguided, since Florida’s own large toll system on the Turnpike and in express lanes would continue in Miami-Dade. Meanwhile, motorists would be left without vital dollars needed for upkeep and improvements to MDX’s existing expressways, which include the Gratigny, Don Shula, Airport Expressway and the Snapper Creek.

“Do you really think in 24 years there won’t be tolls,” Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who serves as MDX chairman after being appointed to the toll board by the County Commission, said during an interview after joining DeSantis for Wednesday’s Miami event.

Gimenez stood with DeSantis during the press conference, staged with a backdrop of a joint project by the MDX and Florida to build an $800 million “signature” bridge on I-395. Gimenez said he didn’t raise the MDX issue with the governor, who won the Republican mayor’s endorsement during last year’s campaign.

Before his public remarks, DeSantis heard from contractors urging him to preserve the MDX, which funds extensive roadwork projects using the toll dollars.

To reporters, the governor said he didn’t want Florida to rely on tolls for highway funding. “I’m sensitive for tolling that hits our blue-collar folks. Because it’s a big expense for them,” DeSantis said during the Miami event, the kick-off of a day designed to highlight the governor’s transportation agenda. “I don’t think you can only do tolls.”

Even if DeSantis pushes for the latest anti-MDX bill, passing it into law may not be the end of the agency. Audrey Edmonson, an MDX board member and the chairwoman of the County Commission, said she wasn’t invited to the governor’s event, which was held in the Democrat’s commission district.

On Wednesday, Edmonson said she expected a lengthy MDX fight over the proposed legislation. “If we’re removed,” she said, “I think we’ll be going to court.”

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