Miami-Dade Expressway Authority taking look at broad range of projects
By Risa Polansky
Tasked 15 years ago with controlling toll revenues and improving traffic on five local expressways, the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority is paving new ground now, taking on or looking into a bevy of new initiatives.
The authority, funded almost entirely by the tolls it collects on the Dolphin, Airport, Gratigny, Don Shula and Snapper Creek expressways, has agreed to put up $48.5 million for a planned revamp of Miami International Airport's Central Boulevard, which Miami-Dade Aviation couldn't afford.
The county's transportation planning agency is considering converting South Miami-Dade Busway right-of-way into toll lanes — and if it happens, the expressway authority, known as MDX, is in line for the job.
And as a county commissioner contemplates changing toll collection methods on the causeway to Key Biscayne, he's got the expressway authority in mind.
Though they may seem out of the box, each of the projects ties in with the agency's original mission, current and former leaders say.
"As far as our mission and vision, it really hasn't changed… our mission is to be an innovative agency that delivers transportation in Miami," said authority Executive Director Javier Rodriguez.
That's still the case, he said, only "you're seeing more projects with MDX's name on it."
Mr. Rodriguez took the wheel in early 2007, the first new agency director in 11 years.
Sonny Holtzman, a longtime attorney who runs a consultancy firm that focuses in part on transportation, was always along for the ride.
The agency's founding chairman, Mr. Holtzman is intimately familiar with its early days, though he's no longer involved.
But "if you're going back to the beginning, actually it makes perfect sense that MDX is doing what they're doing," he said.
The state and county formed the authority in 1994 to take over the local expressways from the state Department of Transportation.
The task: "do everything to improve connectivity" in the county, Mr. Holtzman said.
Mr. Rodriguez says that's the aim of some of the agency's new endeavors.
The airport's Central Boulevard is a "key link" to the Dolphin and State Road 112 expressways, Mr. Rodriguez said.
But Miami-Dade Aviation didn't have the money for a needed widening, re-alignment and service loop project.
"There was an opportunity for MDX to step in," he said.
The expressway authority agreed to fill the $48.5 million gap and act as the lead local agency on the project, making possible the major revamp.
The state Department of Transportation is to match the authority's contribution.
"It's the right thing to do for transit," Mr. Rodriguez said. The airport is a major economic engine, and "Miami needs to stay competitive."
Though the expressway authority is a tolling agency, there will be no tolls on the new Central Boulevard — existing toll revenues will cover the project, he said.
Converting the South Dade busway right-of-way would mean new tolls.
A few years ago, Miami-Dade's Metropolitan Planning Organization began considering how to make better use of under-utilized busway capacity and relieve area traffic, and the expressway authority agreed to take part.
The agency for two years has been working on analysis internally, Mr. Rodriguez said.
If the county planning organization formally adopts the project — expected as early as this month — the expressway authority would be the lead agency to study costs and toll rates and to work with state and federal agencies, as well as affected communities, to drive the project forward.
The authority could end up funding the project and getting a cut of revenue. Public-private partnerships and bonding are also options.
Three scenarios are on the table to convert busway right-of-way into toll roads, allowing motorists to use the bus corridor to bypass area traffic.
Tolls would rise with congestion, like the express toll lanes on northbound I-95. Maximum at peak hours could hit $12.75 in 2030 dollars, documents show.
Scenarios include improving signage on the busway, widening the busway and building elevated stations, or creating a four-lane elevated section to operate like a freeway.
"The whole point with the busway is to enhance transit on that corridor… the real goal of this is to give people choices," Mr. Rodriguez said.
Changing the tolling system on the Rickenbacker Causeway to Key Biscayne is another project in the conceptual stages.
Miami-Dade Commissioner Carlos Gimenez has asked county administrators to explore and recommend options to modernize toll collections to improve traffic flow, including through potentially introducing open-road tolling.
His legislation considers handing tolling operations from the county to the expressway authority.
"There's been a long desire to introduce SunPass into the Rickenbacker," Mr. Rodriguez said.
Now, residents and commuters use what's called a C-Pass to pay the toll electronically.
Those without the pass must pay cash.
Converting to or adding in a SunPass system on the causeway is not about "taking over," Mr. Rodriguez said.
It's a county idea, and "if they need any assistance, we're here to help them."
It's also not about making money, he said.
The expressway authority's function could end up simply as account management.
"The only role that I would see MDX playing is managing the back office," he said.
The agency's activity lately may have caught the eye of county commissioner and transit committee Chair Barbara Jordan.
She's proposing sweeping changes to the trust that oversees county transportation surtax spending, including adding an expressway authority official to the board.
At a special meeting this month — where she pitched her proposal to commissioners — Ms. Jordan twice referenced the possibility of access to "additional resources" for county transit projects by inviting representatives from other agencies to sit on the board, even referencing the expressway authority by name.
"What I was trying to do is establish a synergy with all the transportation entities… so if you have a representative from those transportation agencies as a part of the CITT [trust], who knows? Perhaps we can even generate additional resources."
Because the authority is almost fully self-funded by the tolls it collects, "there are no strings attached to any of their money," former board chair Mr. Holtzman said, eliminating red tape and bureaucracy.
"I think perhaps the reason everyone goes to MDX is because they get the job done quicker… they were formed to get things done in an expeditious manner," he said.
And he said he thinks the agency is doing the job.
Though the authority is veering in new directions, it's working toward its longtime mission, he said.
"The original aim was to improve connectivity throughout Miami-Dade County, and you can't be confined into a box to do that. You have to look at the county as a whole."
Current board chair Maritza Gutierrez agreed via e-mail while on vacation.
"With all the initiatives and projects under way at MDX, we are only actively fulfilling the mission and being a good transportation partner."