Mayor warns that dissolving the expressway toll board could halt 836 extension, too

Miami-Dade’s mayor flies to Tallahassee this week to fight a state takeover of local toll roads, and he says an early victim of the proposed legislation would likely be a planned extension of the 836 expressway into West Kendall.

“One of the major issues I have with that bill is the fact that it may stall that project for some time,” said Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who also serves as the appointed chairman of the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority. The toll board of state and county appointees, best known as the MDX, collects tolls on the 836 and four other expressways. “The people of West Dade need that relief now.”

The proposed 13-mile toll road through Miami-Dade’s western suburbs may end up a prime front in the fight over the MDX’s future, since the local lawmakers trying to dismantle the agency say they don’t want to hurt the planned highway, either.

Sen. Manny Diaz. Jr., R-Hialeah, rejected Gimenez’s assertion, demanding MDX prove it can’t afford to pay for the nearly $1 billion project by reworking its current financial and construction plans.

“We will continue to disagree until we have seen the total financials from MDX,” Diaz said Tuesday. “We have to see the facts.”

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Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez

Roberto Koltun El Nuevo Herald

Diaz, Gimenez and Rep. Bryan Avila, the Hialeah Republican who sponsored the anti-MDX bill in the House, are scheduled to meet Wednesday in Tallahassee to discuss a possible compromise. “We’ve come up with our proposal,” Avila said. “At this point, the onus is on the MDX and its chairman to produce some sort of proposal on their end.”

Avila’s bill would dissolve the MDX by turning over its five tolled expressways — the 836, the Don Shula, the Gratigny, the Snapper Creek and the 112 Airport Expressway — to the Florida Department of Transportation. The state would continue collecting tolls to cover existing projects and debt, but Avila said the aim would be to eventually phase out MDX tolls.

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Rep. Bryan Avila, R-Hialeah

The legislation is the most aggressive yet by Miami-Dade Republican lawmakers to crack down on their hometown toll agency. Jeanette Nuñez led the charge in recent years before giving up her House seat to become lieutenant governor. Her legislation last year forced MDX to lower toll rates by about six percent.

Last week, MDX board members approved measures aimed at tamping down backlash against tolls. It revived a rebate program for heavy users, upping the previous threshold of $100 in tolls paid each year to $250 as a cost-saving measure. MDX scrapped the previous program after the state-required toll cut, saying it could no longer afford the refunds.

The board also passed a resolution declaring a “freeze” to toll rates, though MDX hasn’t approved a toll increase since 2005. The agency sparked fury in 2014 when it expanded tolling on the 836 and 112, a move that ended free rides on the expressways and roughly doubled toll revenue as more motorists were forced to pay.

Gimenez railed against the latest MDX bill when Avila introduced it last month, arguing it would cost Miami-Dade local control of its toll roads without any real hope of toll reductions, since Florida would continue collecting the money. He predicted Florida would also find a way to siphon Miami-Dade dollars to other parts of the state budget. Diaz’s companion bill hasn’t been released yet, but he said Tuesday it has been submitted for filing.

In comments to fellow MDX board members last week, Gimenez didn’t reveal what middle ground he might seek with Avila and Diaz during their meeting in the state capital. “I use honey instead of a stick. But I never negotiate from a position of weakness,” he said. “If we can reach an accord … that gives the Legislature some of what they want [and] also a win for us, I think that’s the best course.”

In offering the proposed “Kendall Parkway” as a potential victim of MDX legislation, Gimenez is pointing to a toll-funded project that stirred controversy but also drew strong support from Kendall residents who attended public hearings on the plan.

It would extend a multi-lane toll expressway past the county’s urban development boundary and through wetlands and undeveloped property, to create a new commuting option in suburban neighborhoods without transit options beyond county buses.

While environmental groups are challenging the proposed expressway in court, MDX executives are already in talks to acquire land for the project, executive director Javier Rodriguez told board members.

Avila said those steps would exempt the Kendall Parkway from any negative consequences of his bill, since it is designed to spare existing projects from cuts. “That essentially makes it an existing project,” Avila said of the land talks. “Obviously [the state] will continue the project, and make sure that it gets done.”