Traffic

In Miami-Dade, drivers (and politicians) feeling toll shock

Vehicles come to a standstill on I-95 northbound between the Northwest 135rd Street and 151st Street exits during rush hour.
Vehicles come to a standstill on I-95 northbound between the Northwest 135rd Street and 151st Street exits during rush hour. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Visit miamiherald.com/tolls. Let us know your reaction. Mad? Use the hashtag #tollshock. Paying less? Use the hashtag #tollsave.

Miami-Dade’s dream of an east-west commuter rail line has died multiple deaths through the years, but Esteban “Steve” Bovo thinks he has a powerful new force to get it done: people fuming over more tolls from the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority.

“The anger that MDX has created has put the wind behind our sails,” said Bovo, the county commissioner who heads up the board’s transportation committee. “That’s the driver. People want to see an alternative.”

More than six months have passed since MDX unveiled a dramatic expansion of tolling on the Dolphin (State Road 836) and Airport (State Road 112) expressways. Backlash against the Nov. 15 expansion, a day that critics branded “Tollmageddon,” continues to roil county politics.

06-07-Tolls

The changes took 18 miles of highway with six tolling spots and added 20 more. And while only one toll fee actually increased (crossing into the far western reach of the Dolphin went up a nickel to 30 cents each way), the dramatic expansion of tolled highway meant a sharp climb in the money flowing from drivers to MDX coffers.

In 2014, the Dolphin generated about $155,000 per day in toll revenue. MDX forecasts call for a daily average of $345,000 for 2015 — an increase of about 120 percent. On the 112 Expressway, a 60 percent revenue increase is expected.

On those stretches already tolled under the pre-November arrangement, fees went down. Heading east past NW 22nd Avenue on the 112 used to cost $1.00. Now it’s down to 35 cents. But most areas of the highways went from being free to costing something.

Before the change, every trip west on the 112 was free. Now it’s 70 cents to drive from I-95 to the airport, thanks to a second 35-cent tolling zone on the western end.

On the Dolphin, a six-mile stretch between 42nd Avenue and 87th Avenue went from being free to costing $2 round-trip. Driving between I-95 and the Florida Turnpike and back jumped from $2.50 to $4.20.

Those fees may seem small, but with daily commutes the dollars are adding up into a significant household expense. For someone driving a previously toll-free stretch on the Dolphin — such as NW 27th Avenue to the Palmetto — the yearly commute now costs more than $500. [To calculate the change’s impact on your own commute, use the Miami Herald’s new toll calculator at miamiherald.com/tolls.]

“We’ve heard from commuters, students, retired people — we’ve even heard from tourists,” said Carlos Garcia, the advertising executive who helped start rollbacktolls.com to fight the MDX hike. “They’re furious. It’s had a profound effect on a lot of people.”

Leaders of MDX, the appointed board that runs both highways and three others, see the expanded fees as fixing inequity on toll roads. No local taxes flow into MDX projects, and toll dollars account for 92 percent of what the agency spends improving, maintaining and expanding the highways under its control.

When only portions of the 112 and Dolphin were tolled, some drivers paid fees that funded improvements on stretches of road that others drove for free. According to MDX estimates, about half of 836’s users were paying no tolls before Nov. 15.

“We didn’t increase the tolls,” MDX Executive Director Javier Rodriguez told a business group last week when an audience member complained about higher tolls. “What we did was close our system.”

The MDX is governed by a civilian board, mostly appointed by Miami-Dade commissioners. It manages five of the county’s busiest highways, including the Don Shula Expressway (State Road 874), Snapper Creek Expressway (State Road 878) and the Gratigny Parkway (State Road 924).

The Dolphin is the longest, most productive of the five, generating 55 percent of the $180 million in tolls and fees that the MDX is expected to collect this year, according to a consultant’s report attached to an MDX bond offering.

That’s about about 40 percent more toll revenue than in 2014, with the expanded tolls helping create an additional $54 million in new revenue. With fuller coffers, MDX is moving forward with the remaining phases of an $879 million improvement designed to ease some of the Dolphin’s most frustrating bottlenecks. Already, work is under way to make it easier for Dolphin traffic to connect with the Palmetto.

While the toll expansion came first, MDX officials see the political backlash easing once motorists see that the money is easing gridlock. Over the next five years, MDX plans to:

▪ Add a new flyover ramp near 82nd Avenue, with an eye toward easing congestion at the nearby main entrance to Doral on 87th Avenue.

▪ Eliminate left-lane exit ramps at the Le Jeune Road interchange, one of the Dolphin’s most congested spots. Side-street traffic would use new ramps on the right side of the road, where a stream of slower vehicles won’t be as disruptive.

▪ Redo the system connecting the Dolphin to NW 27th Avenue, using a new pattern of entrances and exits that will create longer ramps and less of a need to slow down while merging with traffic on the avenue.

▪ Create an extra lane in each direction on the Dolphin as it approaches I-95, and create an elevated ramp off NW 12th Avenue to spare people leaving the Jackson Memorial hospital campus from having to dart into the left lane when trying to head north on I-95.

“It’s going to be day and night,” said Rodriguez. “Any time you do any kind of a toll adjustment, you’re going to get a reaction. The folks that don’t like to pay for transportation, or think it’s free, will react negatively. Those who are seeing value won’t speak up.”

For Carlos Gimeno, promises of better drives haven’t eased his frustration with higher electronic-tolling bills from MDX. An owner of an electrician business in Kendall, he’s shouldering the tolls for seven trucks, along with a teenage son and soon-to-be-driving daughter. He’s paying more, but not able to drive through gridlock any faster.

“Say you don’t have electric in half your house,” Gimeno said. “I go to your house, and say: Oh, we couldn’t fix it. Here’s your bill.”

Elected leaders say frustration with the higher tolls have amplified long-standing annoyance at traffic, melding into a top pocketbook issue for constituents.

“I think it’s gotten up there with Carlos Alvarez’s decision to raise taxes,” said county-mayoral candidate Raquel Regalado, referring to the 2010 budget plan that raised Miami-Dade’s property-tax rates during a housing crash. Voters overwhelmingly recalled Alvarez in 2011, then elected the current mayor, Carlos Gimenez, as his replacement.

“It’s that volatile,” added Regalado, a school board member and radio host. “People are angry.”

Gimenez, who Regalado hopes to unseat, saw enough unhappiness over the November toll expansion that he tried to take over the MDX this spring. With the help of local legislators, he pushed for a change in state law that would have installed him as toll authority chairman.

Seven of the 13 members are appointed by the County Commission, with the governor naming the others. Gimenez said he wanted to insert himself into the board’s power structure to “be the protector of the people’s interest.”

Gimenez’s plan died in Tallahassee. He said he frequently sees MDX backlash spilling onto him, with constituents assuming the toll board falls under his authority as mayor. “I hear it all the time,” he said “When I’m in Publix, people say, ‘Hey, what are you going to do about these tolls?”’

When consultants drew up funding options last year for a light-rail system connecting Miami Beach with Miami, they said Miami-Dade could easily pay for the $530 million Baylink system by imposing tolls on the MacArthur and Julia Tuttle causeways that run between the two destinations. A steering panel led by Gimenez and mayors from both cities nixed the idea last summer, a few months before the well-publicized MDX toll increase took effect. They told told the consultants to find other options.

“Our political climate won’t stomach it at the moment,” said Paul Schweip, chairman of a county board that oversees Miami-Dade’s transit tax. “People have seen their tolls double. And now you’re going to charge me more for this mass transit I may never use, because I’ll be in my car? I don’t blame them.”

For his rail crusade, Bovo sees an upside in the toll backlash. An east-west rail line was promised in 2002 when Miami-Dade voters agreed to an 8-percent increase in sales tax to fund transit projects. Elected leaders soon declared the original plan too ambitious, and scrapped the idea of extending Metrorail deep into the suburbs in favor of a modest, three-mile leg to Miami International Airport.

Now Bovo wants to revive an old idea of converting cargo rail to handle passenger trains, too. To pay for it, he’s pursuing special taxing districts that would redirect new property taxes from the county’s general fund to instead pay for the new route. One option calls for commuter trains running between MIA to NW 137th Avenue.

With the rail lines and right-of-way already existing, Bovo’s $130 million plan would be far less expensive than the nearly $3 billion pricetag for creating a new east-west Metorail route. But with public transportation notoriously expensive to run — Miami-Dade’s transit system loses about $1 million a day — Bovo knows his plan represents a heavy lift. He’s counting on popular support for relief from MDX tolls.

“We’ve got anger with the MDX, anger with toll roads, and anger with gridlock,” Bovo said. “I think that gives policy makers the chance to bring alternatives.”

But he warned the sentiment won’t be permanent. “That window of opportunity will close,” he said. “All it takes is for a hurricane to hit, and the focus will shift.”

How much are you paying?

On Nov. 15, Miami-Dade's highway authority increased tolls on two busy east-west routes: the 112 and the Dolphin. How did the changes affect your cost your commute? Find out with the Miami Herald's new Toll Calculator.

Visit miamiherald.com/tolls. Let us know your reaction. Mad? Use the hashtag #tollshock. Paying less? Use the hashtag #tollsave.

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