Do you know where your toll money goes?
Florida is proposing double-decker toll lanes on the Palmetto Expressway, creating an express route between State Road 836 and South Dade that would allow commuters to pay to avoid traffic.
The $1 billion state proposal would use optional toll lanes to help fund the 5.3-mile construction project on State Road 826, with regular toll lanes at street level and express toll lanes about 30 feet above. The elevated express lanes on the Palmetto would provide a stop-free connection between the 836 to the north and the Don Shula Expressway to the south.
It’s the most aggressive plan yet for a toll road in Miami-Dade, where motorist resentment over paying to drive on public roads has sparked a string of political battles and campaign platforms. For the Palmetto plan, Florida would create a new toll road about three stories in the air to accommodate demand for the north-south route.
Florida’s Department of Transportation drafted the proposal as one of three options under consideration for widening the Palmetto and adding “managed” toll lanes to run alongside the existing free lanes. Drivers pay to use the toll lanes rather than driving the same distance for free, and the price increases the more congested the free lanes become.
“It gives people the ability to choose” to pay tolls, said project manager Maria Perdomo, a Miami-based administrator with the state’s Transportation Department. “People have the option.”
The rise of what are derisively called “Lexus lanes” has some drivers fuming at the concept of paying more to avoid traffic slowing motorists just a few lanes away.
“I think it’s a division of classes,” said Carlos Garcia, founder of the Miami-area advocacy group Roll Back Tolls. “They don’t like it when you call them Lexus lanes. I’ve rebranded them Lamborghini lanes.”
Traffic engineers say the “managed” lane concept can speed travel times across a highway by disrupting the regular traffic patterns. Florida claims that once optional toll lanes were added on parts of Interstate 95 in Miami-Dade, the average rush-hour speed increased from 20 mph to 40 mph in the free lanes.
Miami-Dade is already on track to see another double-decker highway constructed. The new I-395 “signature bridge” project in downtown Miami includes an elevated highway over the existing 836 as an express option to bypass some local exits.
The Palmetto proposal would have three tiers available to motorists. They could drive for free on most of the existing lanes, pay to drive on the new lanes created from the planned widening and retiring of former carpool lanes, or pay to drive on the elevated express bridge over the current Palmetto.
The double-decker toll lanes proposed for the Palmetto haven’t been approved by the administration of Gov. Ron DeSantis, and there are less expensive options on the table, too. The two other plans Transportation Department representatives presented at a recent community meeting would keep the new toll lanes at street level.
One costing about $600 million would run new optional toll lanes on the Palmetto from the 836 to U.S. 1 in South Dade, but all at street level. There would be four new lanes — two in each direction — between the 836 and the Shula, and then one in each direction to U.S. 1.
The cheapest alternative would cost less than $500 million. It would just extend the four optional toll lanes from the 836 to the Shula and not touch the Palmetto on the leg between the Shula and U.S. 1. The study of the three options, including the possibility of doing nothing, is scheduled to finish by the end of 2019.
Traffic disruption is guaranteed during the construction process on one of Miami-Dade’s busiest roads. Florida didn’t provide a timetable for construction, but described “significant impacts” from the double-decker option and just “moderate” impacts from the less extensive alternatives.
The state says the Palmetto has gotten so congested that improvements must be made, and that a widening effort funded in part by toll dollars makes the most sense. Transportation representatives said former carpool lanes would be converted to lanes reserved for toll payers, and the Palmetto itself would be widened by between 30 and 60 feet to create more space for driving.
“The traffic is so bad on the Palmetto,” said Jaime Lopez, a state consultant from the RS&H engineering firm assigned to the proposed project. “If we don’t make these improvements, the expressway becomes a parking lot.”
The top-dollar plan, with an estimated price tag of $996 million, would link the county’s lone dedicated bus lanes to a new network of bus-friendly roads being created through toll dollars. Florida plans a bus-only stretch at the end of the Palmetto to connect the modified expressway with the county’s busway.
The Miami-Dade Expressway Authority, the county toll board that runs the 836 and the Shula, is building modified shoulders on the 836 to accommodate express buses so that they can avoid traffic jams. If the Palmetto builds its express overpass, it would give county buses a semi-reserved route from Florida City to the end of the busway, and then up the Palmetto to the 836, which runs to downtown Miami.
Depending on which option gets selected for the Palmetto, Florida needs to buy up between 20 and 30 homes on the side of the existing expressway to create more room for the toll lanes. Some homeowners attended a March 7 meeting on the Palmetto plans at the West Dade Regional Library.
“I think they’re just doing this to add more toll lanes,” said Juan Suarez, a retail worker who said his home near Southwest 28th Street is on the list of properties that need to be cleared for the project. “They’re saying it’s for congestion. At the end of the day, it’s the money.”
Marina Comas, a paralegal who has spent 36 years in her home nearby, said she doesn’t like the idea of leaving the neighborhood. “All the neighbors know each other,” she said. “When there’s a hurricane, everyone comes out and helps.”
But as a commuter, Comas said she appreciates the effort to improve the highway. “I think it is necessary,” she said. “Traffic on the Palmetto is horrible.”