Miami-Dade County

A new Florida law killed Miami’s MDX toll agency. Taking over the roads isn’t so easy.

The state of Florida created the Greater Miami Expressway Agency five weeks ago, but good luck trying to find it.

There’s no website for the new operator for five of Miami-Dade’s busiest toll roads, including the Dolphin Expressway and the Don Shula. The website for the old toll agency, the Greater Miami Expressway Authority, has been declared “Currently Under Maintenance” for weeks as lawyers hired by the former “MDX” board sue to overturn the law and kill the new “GMX.”

Calls to the former MDX offices overlooking the Dolphin are met with a recorded message that splits the difference between the old regime and the new: “Thank you for calling the Expressway Authority.”

With county leaders refusing to seat a full board for the new agency, former MDX Director Javier Rodriguez remains solely in charge of the toll system. It collects about $250 million annually in tolls and in recent years wound up a top target for Miami-Dade Republicans in the Legislature.

The bill that eventually dissolved the MDX once included a provision that would bar Rodriguez from applying to run the GMX, and the veteran government administrator has been a top advocate in the failed effort to defeat the legislation in Tallahassee.

“My title right now? I have no idea,” said Rodriguez, head of MDX since 2007 and a former state transportation administrator. “I’m running the five highways.”

Internal emails hint at some of the tension underway as Rodriguez’s allies on the old MDX board and in Miami-Dade government try to kill a law that’s bound to bring a new director in to run the county’s toll roads. On July 13, the director of the state’s transportation office in Miami wrote Rodriguez demanding to know who authorized the shuttering of the old MDX website.

“This decision concerns me, because it diminishes customer service capabilities,” wrote James Wolfe, whose position as the local district secretary gave him board seats on both the old MDX and the new GMX. Rodriguez wrote back: “I made that decision for the obvious reason that we could hardly keep it up for an agency that no longer existed. I thought those who wanted to replace MDX with another agency would agree with that decision.”

A Leon County judge has scheduled a hearing Friday in Tallahassee to decide whether the anti-MDX bill signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis on July 3 violated the Florida Constitution’s protection of Miami-Dade County’s ability to manage local affairs. Whichever way Leon Circuit Court Judge John Cooper rules, the legal fight is likely to be settled on appeal.

If the new agency survives, its board will have some significant decisions to make in the coming months. State auditors have already arrived to conduct a financial analysis required by the new law. The GMX board is supposed to use that report to decide on launching a beefed-up rebate program for local toll payers and an outright toll cut.

The push to reduce revenue has foes of the new law warning it will scuttle MDX’s most ambitious expansion project: a 13-mile extension of SR 836 into West Kendall. Borrowing costs are likely to be higher, with Wall Street credit agencies downgrading MDX bonds over “political interference,” as Fitch cited in a May 8 report.

In the days after the law took effect, Rodriguez blamed poorly worded legislation for threatening to cripple the toll agency, which oversees the Dolphin, Shula, Snapper Creek, Airport and Gratigny expressways.

Because the law did not detail how to transition between one toll agency and another, Rodriguez said he wasn’t able to use funds collected by MDX to pay contractors and employees who automatically were transferred to the new agency. That brief stand-off, which Wolfe claimed was not justified, ended once Cooper ruled on July 15 that MDX funds and checks could be used to keep the expressway system running.

Lawyers for the former MDX board, which was headed by county Mayor Carlos Gimenez, and Miami-Dade’s own attorneys argue the new law violates the state’s “home rule” provision, which restricts Tallahassee’s ability to control government decisions that relate solely to Miami-Dade.

Along with barring Gimenez and other MDX board members from taking seats with the GMX, the new law gives the state’s Legislative Budget Commission approval power over borrowing decisions by the toll agency. “It gives to those 14 people the ultimate authority over Miami-Dade’s toll agency,” said Eugene Stearns, the Miami lawyer representing the former MDX board.

Lawyers for the state argue the Legislature had the authority to replace one toll agency with another in Miami-Dade, and say the county opted to use state law when MDX was created in 1994. “That authority which was exercised was not home rule,” Mohammad Jazil, a lawyer for the Florida House of Representatives, told Cooper.

With the court fight to resurrect the MDX underway in Tallahassee, county leaders in Miami have stymied efforts to have the new GMX board take charge. The legislation pushed by Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez, a former Miami-Dade lawmaker, gives Tallahassee four GMX board seats, with the five other seats filled by local leaders. That’s the same power split that was in place under the old MDX rules, but the transition has given the county a chance to block the new regime from assuming control.

Miami-Dade commissioners began their August recess without filling the two GMX seats that the new law said should have been appointed in July. The county’s Transportation Planning Organization (TPO), a board of city and county officials that includes the entire Miami-Dade County Commission, also hasn’t filled the three GMX seats granted that entity and doesn’t have a meeting scheduled until Sept. 26.

DeSantis filled his three GMX seats the same day he signed the bill sponsored by Miami-Dade lawmakers Rep. Bryan Avila, R-Miami Springs, and Sen. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah Gardens. His appointees were Marili Cancio, a lawyer from Key Biscayne; Rodolfo Pages, an investment banker from Miami Beach; and Fatima Perez, an in-house lobbyist for Koch Industries.

Along with Wolfe, the gubernatorial appointees give the GMX board just four sitting members, one short of the majority typically needed for a quorum to conduct business.

“I don’t have a governing board for GMX, and HB 385 abolished the board for MDX,” Rodriguez wrote Wolfe in his July 14 response. “Thus, I have no one to give me directives.”

DeSantis appointees aren’t ready to concede power over the alleged lack of a quorum. With the law requiring appointments be made by Aug. 1, at least one GMX board member is arguing that delays from the county shouldn’t prevent new leadership from taking over the toll system.

“I disagree with Javier that there is no board in place,” Cancio wrote in a July 23 email to the toll agency’s top lawyer, Carlos Zaldivar. “If the county or the TPO refuse to appoint members then those vacancies would not affect quorum .... We should send notice of the first meeting.”

Cancio instructed staff to convene a board meeting on Aug. 1, but Zaldivar rejected that request, citing “myriad legal issues.” Cancio agreed not to press the question — for now.

“I’m going to wait until after the hearing,” she said in an interview, referring to Friday’s court proceedings in Tallahassee. “Then I’m going to have them schedule a public meeting.”