Toll takeover may save expressway authority millions
By Sherri C. Ranta
Expansion of Miami-Dade's expressway headquarters will coincide with the authority's takeover of toll collections, a job the Florida Department of Transportation did last year at a cost to the county of $8 million.
Following $3 million in renovations at 3790 NW 21st St., plans call for the new headquarters to open in mid-summer, said Servando Parapar, executive director of the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority. He said the building would centralize toll operations and be home to a future Traffic Management Control Center.
A 13,554-square foot addition will more than double the size of the expressway headquarters to about 19,000 square feet.
The authority will begin taking control of toll collections in July with the transfer from the state to be completed in December, Mr. Parapar said. For the short-term investment needed to centralize headquarters, the expressway authority would no longer lose $8 million annually in toll receipts to the Florida Department of Transportation for doing the work - and the local group will be able to improve its accounting, he said.
"We will have a much higher level of service and a drop in costs," Mr. Parapar said.
Toll collections total about $45 million a year on Miami-Dade's five expressways, which include State Road 836, an east-west route known as the Dolphin Expressway.
State officials began preparing for the switch earlier this year by transferring career employees out of toll plazas. All toll workers are now contract workers, Mr. Parapar said, with the exception of a few Florida Department of Transportation supervisors.
He said the authority also wants to expand electronic toll collections.
"One of the things we are doing is minimizing the use of toll collectors," Mr. Parapar said. "We are transitioning electronic toll collection from being the exception to the norm."
The new Traffic Management Control Center, Mr. Parapar said, would eventually be capable of electronically monitoring traffic conditions on the authority's expressways and could coordinate with state traffic control centers on Florida's Turnpike and I-95.
"At this point we have very little control. We rely on many items, from the Internet to faxes from each of the toll plazas," he said.
To speed the authority's future monitoring plans, the expressway authority is preparing plans for a $4 million project to lay fiber-optic cable along both sides of State Road 836, a project that makes possible the use of cameras and electronic signs on the expressway.
Completion is one to two years away, Mr. Parapar said. Eventually, he said, the improvements would allow for MDX to connect to state and interstate systems.
Expressway authority officials had hoped to have private industry build the fiber-optic system and lease the capacity back to private companies. Unfortunately, Mr. Parapar said, the request for proposals went out about the same time many dot-com businesses, which had increased the demand for high-tech cable, crashed.
"Once the markets recover, there is nothing that will prohibit us from renting additional capacity for those markets," he said. "That's the way they do it in Orlando."
In addition to the fiber-optic project, workers are renovating the main toll plaza on State Road 836 and redesigning the expressway between NW 17th and 27th avenues. The work, Mr. Parapar said, includes construction of a NW 17th Avenue ramp that will redirect about 20% of the traffic from the main toll plaza. The ramp is expected to open in mid-summer.
The authority's five-year program, he said, includes 31 projects at a cost of almost $800 million that will be partially or fully paid for by the local expressway authority. During the next five years, Mr. Parapar said, the authority plans to modernize toll plazas and improve existing roads. That would include extending State Road 836, the major east-west expressway, to the west of the Florida Turnpike.
In addition to State Road 836, the Miami-Dade authority is responsible for operations and maintenance of four other local highways: State Road 112, known as the Airport Expressway; State Road 874 or the Don Shula Expressway; State Road 878 or Snapper Creek Expressway, and State Road 924 or Gratigny Parkway. All are toll road with the exception of State Road 878.