South Florida’s toll express lanes near an important milestone

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

The toll express lanes network being built in South Florida is nearing a significant milestone.

Sometime in the fall, the extension of Interstate 95 express lanes from Miami-Dade into Broward will be completed, thus delivering the first full-fledged eastern leg of the network now being assembled along major expressways in both counties.

Work that began last year on the western leg of the network on the Palmetto Expressway and Interstate 75 from Miami-Dade into Broward is now well under way and is expected to be completed in 2017.

The legs will advance the network considerably since both projects bring the facilities to or near Interstate 595 in Broward, thus forming the northern portion of an express lane quadrangle that eventually may link I-95 on the east, I-75/Palmetto on the west and State Road 836 on the south.

While the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) has hailed the express lane network as a tool to manage congestion, it has drawn the ire of many commuters because it has added tolls on once toll-free roads and will add tolls upon tolls on already tolled roads like Florida’s Turnpike. Widespread anger against tolls stems from last November’s controversial decision to hike tolls on State Roads 836 and 112, two of the busiest expressways in Miami-Dade.

Several elected leaders in Miami-Dade have sided with angry commuters and are now seeking a change in toll revenue strategy. Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez has expressed interest in taking over the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority (MDX), which runs five toll roads in the county, and has asked the agency to lower the tolls it raised last November. Meanwhile, county commissioners and others are asking that toll revenue be shared in construction of transit projects.

Besides the five toll roads MDX manages, the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) operates the toll express lanes on I-95, and is building the new facilities on the Palmetto and on I-75, as well as on the Homestead Extension of Florida’s Turnpike. MDX and FDOT use toll revenue to operate, maintain and upgrade their toll roads. But revenue from toll express lanes also helps subsidize express bus services on I-95.

“To better understand how the toll revenues on the express lanes are used, it’s important to understand why we collect tolls on I-95,” said Ivette Ruiz-Paz, an FDOT spokeswoman in Miami. “The levels of congestion on I-95 before the express lanes were extremely high during most hours of the day. Widening was not an option the community supported so the Miami-Dade and Broward County transit and Metropolitan Planning Organizations, along with the FDOT implemented a project that was designed to manage congestion and provide a reliable trip for users.”

It was the FDOT Miami office that helped pioneer the toll express lanes concept when it completed in 2008 the first phase of the system on northbound I-95 from north of downtown Miami to the Golden Glades interchange where I-95 links up with the Turnpike in north Miami-Dade. Once the northbound phase was activated, FDOT added southbound lanes.

Work on extending the I-95 express lanes to Broward began in 2011 and is currently expected to be completed in the fall. Though the Broward leg passes by I-595, it will not connect directly to the existing reversible express lanes on I-595.

That link is expected to be included in the third phase of the I-95 express lanes extension whose construction is expected to begin next year and continue into 2020 and beyond.

Phase Three extends the system further north to Linton Boulevard in Delray Beach, south Palm Beach County.

The I-75 western leg of the network, however, will provide a link to the I-595 lanes. In fact, steps to build that connection began Friday when workers closed the first entrance ramp from southbound I-75 to eastbound 595express lanes so workers can build the new connector bridge to the reversible lanes. The ramp will reopen in the summer of 2016, FDOT said.

Related stories from Miami Herald