Miami-Dade County

Santa comes early for Miami-Dade SunPass users

Sunpass sensors hang beneath the variable toll signs on the Northbound I-95 Express lanes between I-195 and NW 61st Street.
Sunpass sensors hang beneath the variable toll signs on the Northbound I-95 Express lanes between I-195 and NW 61st Street. Miami Herald

Santa Claus, who after all doesn’t have to deal with the eternal gridlock of South Florida roads, came early this week for 38,000 drivers who got refunds for almost a third of the tolls they’ve paid on the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority’s highways.

“Christmas time! Fifty bucks! I’m not gonna sneeze at it,” exclaimed Maria Luisa Castellanos, a Coral Gables architect who never expected all her hours driving on State Road 836 to be so lucrative. “It’s a nice surprise.”

MDX mailed checks Tuesday for a total of $2.2 million, money saved because the agency’s credit rating was upgraded and it cost less than expected to float construction bonds. Average check: $75.

About 83,000 drivers applied for the MDX Advantage Program rebates, which gave drivers 30 percent of the tolls they paid during the first six months of 2015. The only requirements: using a SunPass transponder to run up at least $50 in tolls on MDX freeways during that time.

But nearly 45,000 motorists were disqualified because they didn’t meet the spending threshhold. That led to some disgruntlement this week among drivers who didn’t realize that the Florida Turnpike and I-95’s express lanes, which aren’t administered by MDX, wouldn’t count toward rebates.

“I spent $720 in tolls on my SunPass this year and all I got was a $59 refund? Big deal!” snorted Jaime Basagoitia, manager of a Weston shipping company. He was only slightly mollified when he realized most of his tolls were spent on the turnpike. America, he thundered, is being nibbled to death by uncounted taxes at every turn.

“I call this rebate hush money,” he said. “Trying to distract us from all the taxes we pay. But it’s really just salt in the wound.”

So, he was going to send it back? “Send it back?!!! Oh, you’re a cruel man,” Basagoitia retorted.

$75 Size of average rebate to SunPass users for MDX tolls

MDX officials, for their part, pronounced the program a success. They had hoped to sign up 20,000 drivers, though they didn’t really know what to expect because no tolling agency has ever tried anything like this before.

“There’s no program like this in the nation,” said MDX spokesman Mario Diaz. “So we really didn’t have a benchmark to work off of.”

The program will continue next year. MDX officials say state law will require all the participants to sign up again, though they hope to make that as easy as possible — perhaps just by clicking a button on an email. Newcomers will be welcome, too, though MDX hasn’t set the dates for opening enrollment.

Though the rebate program was bankrolled by the savings in a bond issue, its political purpose was clearly to neutralize some of the pubic anger at MDX’s 2014 decision to raise tolls $52 million. And Diaz said the high number of SunPass owners who didn’t spend the minimum $50 in tolls in six months proves that one of the often-cited complaints about the toll increase — that it raised the cost of a round-trip on State Road 836 to $4.20 — was “just propaganda.”

“People don’t use our expressways for long trips like that,” Diaz said. “If they did, a lot more of them would have spent a lot more than $50 last year. Our roads are mostly used for short hops — say, traveling 836 between the turnpike and the Palmetto Expressway — and the impact of the toll increase was much less for those kind of trips.”

Whatever the wider implications, the checks were mostly greeted with approval as they arrived this week.

“Honestly, I was just expecting a couple of pennies, 20 bucks at the most,” said Rene Ferretti, a technology specialist with Royal Caribbean. “Most of these loyality reward programs don’t turn out to be very rewarding.... Instead, I got $46.50. That’s gas money, maybe a couple of lunches at work. It’s all good.”

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