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Front Page » Transportation » Legislators, county collide over expressway tolls

Legislators, county collide over expressway tolls

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Written by on March 19, 2014

Legislators, county collide over expressway tolls

Two of Miami’s state legislators have filed bills for the upcoming session in Tallahassee to stop the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority from raising tolls – and a majority of county commissioners plan to fight them on it.

Senate bill 772 by Sen. Rene Garcia and House bill 353 by Rep. Jeanette Nunez, both Republicans, would rescind a new toll structure approved by the Expressway Authority; prohibit the authority from increasing tolls or establishing new tolls; prohibit partnerships with other government agencies; and shift the majority of the authority’s board appointments from the county to the state, among other measures, according to county officials.

Tuesday, commissioners voted 9-3 to approve a resolution by Dennis Moss to oppose the bills or similar legislation and to direct the county’s state lobbyists to advocate against the bills.

Mr. Moss – chairman of the county’s Transportation & Aviation Committee – said the bills, if approved, would result in a “dismantling” of the Expressway Authority.

“They play a very important role in the community,” he added.

Chairwoman Rebeca Sosa and commissioners Esteban Bovo Jr. and Juan Zapata voted against the resolution. Xavier Suarez was absent for the vote.

Created in 1994 by county commissioners, the Expressway Authority controls five highways in Miami-Dade: State Road 112 (Airport Expressway), State Road 836 (Dolphin Expressway), State Road 874 (Don Shula Expressway), State Road 878 (Snapper Creek Expressway) and State Road 924 (Gratigny Parkway).

Expressway Authority Executive Director Javier Rodriguez urged the commissioners to support the resolution, noting that revenue collected by the authority goes back into the highway system. And contract work on the system often goes to small and local businesses, he said, with such firms receiving 37% of the authority’s service contracts in the past five years.

Mr. Rodriguez said the authority has started “electronic tolling” on three of its five highways, which has resulted in more motorists paying tolls when traveling short distances along those roads. Overall, he added, the authority’s tolls come to an average of 17 cents per mile – in line with other expressway authorities in Florida.

The bills, Mr. Rodriguez said, would damage the authority’s credit ratings, making it more difficult and expensive for it to raise money for projects through bond sales.

“We’ve put everything on hold,” he said about the authority’s plans.

Ms. Sosa suggested the authority’s board members should make their case to Miami-Dade’s legislative delegation, especially to Mr. Garcia and Ms. Nunez.

“I think you need to talk to both of them,” she added.

Mr. Moss said Miami-Dade has the only expressway authority among 10 in Florida that doesn’t receive state grants or state gasoline tax money.

“It depends exclusively on tolls,” he said.

Mr. Moss suggested the bills stem from motorists’ discontent.

“A lot of has to do with folks concerned with the tolls and toll rates that are implemented or plan to be implemented,” he said.

Commissioner Jose “Pepe” Diaz suggested the bills are the latest of ongoing attacks on the Expressway Authority, including attempts to rob the agency of its local powers and bring it under state control.

“We want to find a way for them to just stop,” Mr. Diaz said.

Commissioner Barbara Jordan suggested that commissioners and other local officials often find themselves at odds with Miami-Dade’s legislators.

“Maybe the commission needs a retreat” with the legislative delegation, she said, “because it always seems like it’s our own attacking our own.”

“There has been a disconnect between us and them,” Ms. Sosa added.

“People treat us like the enemy,” Commissioner Sally Heyman said, referring to Florida’s political circles. “The rest of the state can do it, but it shouldn’t be coming from in-house.”

State officials should butt out of the authority’s business, Mr. Moss added, “just like they don’t want the federal government to be always meddling in their affairs.”

Commissioner Juan Zapata, a former state representative, suggested that commissioners were being too hard on the local state delegation.

“I don’t think we do a good enough job to inform the delegation on the impact” of various initiatives “and how our budget works,” Mr. Zapata said.

“If we’re going to point the finger, we all have blame here,” he added. “And finger-pointing gets you nowhere in Tallahassee.”

Mr. Zapata suggested that legislators file bills that sometimes deliberately “go too far” just to establish a starting point for negotiations.

“They also have to be responsive their constituents,” he added, “and some of them are upset at what’s happened.”

2 Responses to Legislators, county collide over expressway tolls

  1. Jane Walker

    March 21, 2014 at 11:37 am

    Good for Chair member Sosa and Commissioners Bovo and Zapata. Mr. Zapata is exactly correct. Toll Payers and the Miami-Dade Delegation are making a strong statement for fiscal austerity, transparency, representative government and justifiable toll rate setting.

    Commissioner Moss has done a lot to advocate for transit. I admire this and he is correct in making this a priority. We shouldn’t dismantle MDX, but we should be watching the hen house. We should also seeing BCC aids attending those committee and board meetings. They are not.

    The BCC has a job to do and they are not doing it very well. The MDX board is neither demographically, socio-economically or geographically diverse. So much for representative government. The elected Board of County Commissioners is the entity that appoints MDX non-elected members and, yet, their ability to properly vet a candidate is in question, as evidenced by the embarrassing Robert Holland situation. I wonder if the board thought to request attendance records. Mr. Holland attended 1 committee meeting in 2012. He only physically attended 3 board meetings that year. He did not fill out his financial disclosures going back to 2007. This was so bad, the Ethics Commission fined him $9,000, which he promptly ignored and did not pay. Mr. Holland does not appear to be representing his community, so it begs the question, why is he on that board? So, if the BCC does not want to be bullied by the state, I suggest the BCC do its job in its appointments and reappointments. That was how this was designed to work and, yes, this gives the BCC (and the MPO) the ability to use their bully pulpit.

    As to the subject of tolls, don’t be fooled that the public or grass roots groups are always anti-toll. However, many of us are anti-unjustifiable tolls rate setting. I will use the recent MDX policy change of inflating tolls to the CPI index, without a vote, to be raised regularly. By the way, many Directors of MDX were also opposed to this. One must remember that the major portion of MDX’s costs are related to fixed rate, inflation-proof, debt. Why would you inflate 100% of something that is only 30 or 40% affected by inflation? Secondly, why would we tolerate this no-voting thing that allows MDX to raise these tolls without a vote. Every year the BCC suffers as they push through the public and painful process of the county budgets. Its a miserable process, but its necessary. Commissioners, I hope you a re reading this response, because I know you can relate to that statement. Thank you, by the way, for suffering through that each year. Why would we ever give MDX a pass on this?

    While this proposed legislation deals with MDX, I will use the example of Dianne Gutierrez-Scaccetti, who now heads the Florida Turnpike Authority (the FTE). She left NJ after 20-something years. That NJ Agency is buried in debt and now there are state legislators suggesting a staggering $.15/gallon state gas tax to …. service this debt. Ms. Gutierrez-Scaccetti was holding the reins and retired soon after some scurrilous questions about conflicts of interest in NJ and we inherited her in Florida. Now Ms. Gutierrez-Scaccetti and the FTE proposes to take a promised four-lane turnpike widening project on the HEFT and turn that into a Turnpike express toll lane project (not dedicated bus lanes, by the way, that Commissioner Moss refers to). This is yet-again, another example of Big Government Tolling and, yes, it supports the idea that MDX is a good idea in theory by contrasting state- versus locally-run agencies.

    FTE is an example of what we get when we don’t pay attention to what’s going on. We need to pay attention to MDX as a means of protecting it AND hoisting decades worth of long-term debt on ourselves and our children. Debt matters, folks. We had better make sure our long range planning processes include viable solutions for transit (i.e., like those bus lanes Commissioner Moss has been wanting) and other meaningful ways to get people out of cars and into other options. You cannot borrow your way out of debt nor spend your way to prosperity.

    People in communities like Kendall and Homestead are paying too much to get to work. It’s the bottom line and it does affect our localized economies and our property values. I say, good for the Miami-Dade Delegation for pushing back and making a statement. It is time to have some very important dialogues in this county. This approach that no toll or tax is too high is crushing the middle class and the job creators in this community. My fed-state-local gas taxes and tolls, combined, amount to more than $2,000 for my household (two drivers). That’s significant and the BCC and the MPO need to consider this.

  2. Carlos

    March 21, 2014 at 12:09 pm

    While we like the concept of MDX and the fact that the money stays in Miami-Dade County there are things that the nonelected board and the County commission should reassess. Among many things, how BCC appointments and vets members to the MDX board. There is a board member presently that has not filed financial disclosures for over five years and has accumulated over $9000 in penalties. How is this fair to the average toll payer that if would not pay their Tolls, would rack up unbelievable fines and penalties and have their license suspended. Let’s be clear. Our grassroots group is for justifiable Tolls. We are not anti toll. This and other things is what has caused what is before MDX and the BCC and the legislature at this time. Our compliments to commissioners Sosa, Bovo and Zapata for acknowledging that something needs to change.

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