Miami-Dade County

The end of Miami-Dade’s toll board? DeSantis signs law dissolving the MDX

A view of the new toll system of Snapper Creek Expressway, one of five toll highways managed by the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority. The Florida Legislature on May 3, 2019, passed a bill to transfer the Snapper Creek and four other MDX roads to a new entity, the Greater Miami Expressway Agency.
A view of the new toll system of Snapper Creek Expressway, one of five toll highways managed by the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority. The Florida Legislature on May 3, 2019, passed a bill to transfer the Snapper Creek and four other MDX roads to a new entity, the Greater Miami Expressway Agency. Especial para el Nuevo Herald

The Miami-Dade Expressway Authority moved closer to death Wednesday night when Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law a bill dissolving the toll board that’s been a target of Miami politicians for years. MDX lawyers have already sued trying to invalidate the legislation, which creates a new toll board to take the MDX’s place.

Even if a judge refuses to intervene, motorists shouldn’t expect big changes anytime soon on the 836 or the other four expressways owned by the MDX. The law backed by two Miami-Dade Republicans transfers the existing Miami-Dade Expressway Authority staff, expressways and financial structure (including toll rates) into the hands of the new Greater Miami Expressway Agency.

“The people of Miami-Dade County have made it clear that the MDX transportation authority has needed reform for some time and I am pleased to sign HB 385 into law,” DeSantis said in a statement. “I appreciate the Miami-Dade legislative delegation’s commitment to providing toll relief to their constituents and ensuring that government agencies act in the best interest of the communities they serve.”

The DeSantis signing announcement hints at another power struggle pending over the toll agency that oversees the Airport, Dolphin, Don Shula, Gratigny, and Snapper Creek expressways.

The governor filled three of the four “GMX” seats he controls, rapidly populating a board that some county leaders would like to see remain as empty as possible. County commissioners who opposed the DeSantis legislation have floated the idea of not making the five appointments the law grants local elected bodies, which could deny the new toll agency the quorum needed to make decisions.

DeSantis’ board appointments are Marili Cancio, a lawyer from Key Biscayne and a former Republican candidate for a state Senate seat; Rodolfo Pages, of Miami Beach, managing director of the Caoba Capital Partners private equity firm and charter-school executive; and Fatima Perez, a Miami resident who was once chief of staff to Philip Levine when he was mayor of Miami Beach and now regional manager for Koch Industries.

But both sides predict significant consequences from the legislation, which pitted Miami-Dade’s mayor against fellow county Republicans in Tallahassee.

Mayor Carlos Gimenez, the MDX’s appointed chairman, claimed the bill would cripple plans to extend the MDX’s busiest highway, the 836, into West Kendall while failing to deliver any significant toll relief to motorists. Credit firms on Wall Street have already lowered ratings on MDX debt, saying political interference makes the toll board a riskier borrower on the bond market.

In a defiant statement issued Wednesday night, Gimenez referred to himself as MDX’s chairman and described the law DeSantis signed as an “attempt” to take over the toll agency. “It’s unconscionable that Gov. DeSantis allowed a few local legislators with personal and political vendettas to have their way when so many people in our County would be hurt by the outcome,” Gimenez said.

The Republican who endorsed DeSantis last year also accused the governor of “patronage” with one of his GMX appointees, but did not elaborate.

“I will not stand still while some in our local legislative delegation and now our Governor want to bring back the bad old days of unaccountability and move our residents’ hard-earned money to other parts of the states to pay for the whims of the politically connected elsewhere,” he said.

The News Service of Florida reported Friday that MDX’s attorneys had filed a renewed motion for a preliminary injunction to halt the changes. The court earlier denied the request for an injunction because the bill had not been signed into law.

Sponsors Rep. Bryan Avila, R-Miami Springs, and Sen. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah Gardens, said their bill was the only way to end MDX arrogance and sweep in new leadership to make lower toll bills the priority.

The bill freezes toll rates through 2029, but grants exceptions for a super-majority vote or if more money is needed to cover existing debt. It also calls for the new agency to boost the MDX’s existing toll rebate program, provided a financial analysis determines the GMX can afford to lose the revenue.

The new legislation gives Miami-Dade’s County Commission and its Transportation Planning Organization five board seats. Four go to the governor — three appointees and his Transportation Department’s local administrator.

It’s the same local edge embedded in MDX’s nine-seat board, but with an added penalty for existing MDX appointees named by the county. While MDX directors holding gubernatorial appointments are eligible to serve on the new board, county appointees — including Gimenez — are barred from taking GMX seats.

At a June 20 meeting, County Commission Chairwoman Audrey Edmonson said she doubts many people will want to serve on the new agency. ““They know it won’t be autonomous,” she said. “If they don’t do what they’re told by the little boys up in Tallahassee, they’ll get spanked.”

Avila and Diaz released joint statements after the governor’s signing, which came late in the afternoon before the start of the Independence Day holiday — a time where state news tends to attract a smaller audience. Diaz’s statement thanked legislative leaders and the governor “for helping us fight for our constituents and tackle the growing traffic concerns of our community.”