Do you know where your toll money goes?
If Miami-Dade lawmakers get their way and give back 25 percent of the MDX tolls paid by local drivers, the lost revenue will sink the $1 billion effort to extend the State Road 836 expressway into West Kendall, according to a county analysis.
The proposed 25 percent rebate program for vehicles registered in the county would cut revenue for the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority by about $50 million a year, said Randy Topel, a financial consultant for both county government and the MDX. The head of both, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, is fighting the state bills that would dissolve the MDX and force toll cuts on the new agency that would take over the expressway system.
Those cuts, in the form of yearly rebates, would starve the MDX roads of cash needed for new construction projects and push the new expressway authority into the red by 2023 if it tried to build the proposed 13-mile “Kendall Parkway,” according to Topel’s analysis.
“The extension is gone with the toll cut,” Topel said Thursday. “The question is how many other projects that have already been approved also need to be reduced.”
Peppered with charges of arrogance, indifference and even county treason, the battle over the MDX has pitted Miami-Dade’s Tallahassee representatives against local leadership. The fault line forms around a pair of bills by Rep. Bryan Avila, R-Miami Springs, and Sen. Manny Diaz. Jr., R-Hialeah Gardens, that would dissolve the MDX and replace it with the GMX — a new toll board called the Greater Miami Expressway Agency with a rule that no current board members could join the new one.
The bills also ban the new board from raising tolls for 10 years and requires the agency to quickly implement a rebate program giving back 25 percent of tolls charged to vehicles registered in Miami-Dade. Asked for their counter to the county’s analysis, Avila and Diaz both called the 836 extension a far-off project that’s the subject of court challenges by environmental groups. It would be largely financed by new tolls collected along the extended parkway, and that the new board would have to decide whether it could be built.
“Our proposal would force GMX to review their projects,” Avila said, “and prioritize the most important projects.”
The death of the Kendall Parkway has been a prime argument for Gimenez as he barnstorms local city councils in an effort to drum up resistance to bills he has so far been unable to stop in Tallahassee.
“The Avila-Diaz bill puts the Kendall Parkway in jeopardy,” Gimenez, MDX’s chairman, told the Miami city commission on Thursday morning, his sixth stop in a municipal chamber in 48 hours. “That’s who I’m here fighting for — the people of West Kendall and their quality of life.”
Gimenez holds one of the five county seats on the nine-member MDX board, and he’s used his position to revive an 836 extension that county commissioners had blocked repeatedly in previous years.
Now he’s at risk of being the MDX’s last chairman. The Avila bill is seen as a lock for House passage, and the Diaz bill has one more hearing in the Senate before a floor vote.
People involved in the talks describe the anti-MDX legislation as a priority for Tallahassee’s Republican leadership, and one of the toll board’s top foes is the state’s new lieutenant governor, former Miami-Dade legislator Jeanette Nuñez. While in the House, she helped pass legislation trying to force toll cuts at MDX, and the agency sued Florida to block state interference before instituting its own toll reduction.
Helen Aguirre Ferré, communications director for Gov. Ron DeSantis, said Nuñez “hasn’t been specifically involved in this legislation at all.” Even so, Nuñez is seen as a main architect of Tallahassee’s effort to kill the MDX.
Miami Mayor Francis Suarez cited Nuñez when he told Gimenez Thursday he wasn’t ready to support the county mayor’s opposition to the anti-MDX bills. “The other concern I have, frankly, is thumbing my nose at two legislators ... and the lieutenant governor,” Suarez said.
Gimenez is fighting the anti-MDX bills with his own proposal to dissolve the agency he leads and replace it with a new toll board.
The Transportation Authority of Miami-Dade would run the MDX expressways and take over the county portion of Florida’s Turnpike, and using surplus state dollars from that highway to fund a 20 percent toll cut there and on the MDX expressways. Gimenez would also halt the state’s yearly increase on Turnpike tolls for inflation.
Topel, the government financial consultant, produced a report showing the Turnpike generates enough extra dollars to fund the 836 debt and still leave nearly $2 billion leftover for countywide road and transit projects. The MDX has begun acquiring land for the new expressway and circulated construction schedules with roadwork starting later this year.
Topel’s analysis of the Tallahassee plan shows the extension’s price tag is far too high for a lower stream of toll revenue. By 2023, the new MDX would only have about 98 cents of cash to spend for every dollar of debt it would owe. The gap widens to 77 cents per dollar owed by 2026.
“I’ve never dealt with a scenario like this,” Topel said. With legislation mandating certain toll rates, “we have to come in and find out what to get rid of.”
Gimenez hasn’t found a lawmaker to sponsor his alternative legislation, a shortcoming that’s even more apparent with just three weeks left in the session. But he’s been winning local support for the plan, with commissioners in Doral and Miami Gardens joining the Miami-Dade County Commission in endorsing it.
“I remain 100 percent completely in shock that our own people would essentially be traitors against the residents of this county, up there in Tallahassee,” said Eileen Higgins, a county commissioner representing Miami and Miami Beach.
Avila has questioned why Miami-Dade’s government is working so hard to hard to save a toll agency that became a political target in 2014 when it dramatically expanded tolling on the 836 and ended the ability to travel some of it for free.
Diaz said the legislation can be amended to make the 836 a priority for the new toll board, but characterized the extension as more of a wish-list item for the MDX. “I think we need to talk about real projects that can materialize now,” he said.
Even so, the path to passage may require more money for the 836. Annette Taddeo, a Senate Democrat from Kendall, has been a key negotiator on Diaz’s anti-MDX bill, securing some concessions on transit funds and retaining a majority of local seats on the new toll agency’s board. She said talks continue, and that the proposed 25 percent rebate could be smaller to preserve funding for the expressway extension.
“If the county is accurate in saying we won’t be able to build the Kendall Parkway, then we have a problem,” she said. “There’s been a lot of discussion about the Kendall Parkway ... Of course, that’s a concern of mine.”