Do you know where your toll money goes?
Hoping to fend off efforts to dissolve the Miami-Dade toll board he leads, Mayor Carlos Gimenez is proposing a local takeover of the Florida Turnpike, using state dollars to lower tolls across the county and pay for new transit projects.
Gimenez plans to unveil the proposal in a Thursday press conference. It would dissolve the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority, which runs the Dolphin and four other toll highways, and replace it with a new board that would oversee the existing MDX roads and a 48-mile portion of the Turnpike that runs through Miami-Dade.
At the heart of the proposal is using what the mayor’s financial advisors say are significant surplus dollars on the Miami-Dade section of the Turnpike to pay for toll cuts on the MDX and new transit projects in the county.
The plan proposes an immediate 20 percent cut to tolls charged by the MDX and the Miami-Dade portion of the Turnpike, most of which is called the Homestead Extension (or the HEFT).
In a letter to the Miami-Dade lawmakers who are pushing a state takeover of the MDX, Gimenez, who serves as chairman of the MDX, outlined a plan to shift control of the county’s toll roads to a new authority governed solely by elected officials.
Gimenez holds one of the MDX seats appointed by the county commission, but most of the nine directors come from the private sector. Under his plan, the new authority’s board would consist of the mayors of Miami-Dade, Doral, Hialeah, Miami Gardens and Miami. The governor would appoint four other board members, who would need to be local elected officials.
The Transportation Authority of Miami-Dade could shift surplus toll dollars to transit projects in the county, and Gimenez says the proposal would generate $1.8 billion toward new rapid-transit systems being developed under the county’s SMART Plan.
“I think we can agree that we can do a better job at providing real toll rate reductions throughout the County,” Gimenez said in the letter to State Sen. Manny Diaz and Rep. Bryan Avila, who wrote the MDX bill that has become the mayor’s top target in the 2019 legislative session.
Florida Politics first reported on the letter Wednesday evening.
Diaz and Avila were not immediately available for comment. Diaz told Florida Politics he needed more time to respond to the Gimenez plan. “This is heavy material,” Diaz said. “I think it needs to be reviewed before we can make any comment.”
Gimenez’s plan is the latest effort to derail legislation by the two fellow Republicans from Miami-Dade that would upend the county’s existing transportation system. Along with dissolving the MDX, and ending toll collections on its expressways after the existing debt is paid down decades from now, the Avila and Diaz bills would limit how the county can spend its half-percent transportation tax. The proposals, Senate Bill 898 and House Bill 385, have not yet made it to floor votes.
For his own proposal to dissolve the MDX, Gimenez tapped the financial staff of both his administration in county government and at the toll agency itself.
Enacting it would require Florida to cut off a portion of the Turnpike that, by the Gimenez numbers, is generating significant spare cash that can be used throughout the entire system. Rather than that money flowing into state coffers, it would be available for maintenance and construction on MDX roads and for Miami-Dade transit projects.
The Turnpike has more roadway than the MDX system, which includes the Airport, Dolphin, Gratigny, Shula, and Snapper Creek Expressways, according to figures released by Gimenez’s office.
The MDX consists of 228 “lane miles” — calculated as the length of a road times the number of lanes. The Miami-Dade segment of the Turnpike has 273 lane miles. Even with more miles, the Miami-Dade portion of the Turnpike generates far less toll revenue: $177 million in 2020 versus $241 million for the MDX system, according to projections provided by Gimenez’s office.
Almost all of the Florida Turnpike in Miami-Dade would transfer to the new toll authority, but a small portion near the Broward County line that’s not part of the Homestead Extension would remain under state control.
Under the plan, the new Transportation Authority of Miami-Dade would take over the Homestead Extension segment of the Turnpike for free, but pay off about $300 million worth of Turnpike debt. The county says that should be Miami-Dade’s share of the system’s $2.6 billion debt, based on the Homestead Extension accounting for about 12 percent of the lane miles for the entire system.
Even after borrowing money to pay off that state debt, the Gimenez plan would keep tolls flat for generations.
Along with the 20 percent cut on the Turnpike and on MDX roads, Gimenez’s plan would end the state’s yearly inflation-adjustment for Turnpike tolls. A forecast shows no toll increases through 2053, and roughly $8.5 billion less revenue than what the two toll systems would have generated without the 20 percent cut and the cancellation of inflation-adjusted prices on the Turnpike.
Gimenez describes the forecast as roughly “$9 billion in toll savings to our toll payers” in his letter.
The savings numbers rely on both MDX and the Turnpike not pursuing major improvement projects beyond the proposed $1 billion extension of the 836 into West Kendall. MDX directors and the Miam-Dade commission have already approved that project, and it would be funded by existing surplus dollars from the toll agency and new toll dollars collected on the 14-mile extension. A 12-year financial forecast released by Gimenez’s office shows no new borrowing for the combined system after 2025.
“While this proposal may sound too good to be true,” Gimenez wrote Avila and Diaz in the March 22 letter, “these are the facts.”