BRADENTON, Fla. — Bills making it harder for the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority to increase tolls advanced in the Florida Legislature this week, sparking concern about the authority’s ability to finance future projects.
The bills were filed after South Florida residents became enraged over toll hikes to take effect this year that would advance MDX’s $880 million, five-year work program.
Senate Bill 772 by Sen. Rene Garcia and House Bill 353 by Rep. Jeanette Nunez, both Republicans from South Florida, would require toll hikes for new projects be approved by a supermajority vote of the Miami-Dade County Commission.
Currently, the MDX board develops the work program and sets toll schedules. The agency’s main source of funding comes from tolls. It does not receive state aid, funds from gas tax revenues, or grants.
Fausto Gomez, a lobbyist for MDX and Miami-Dade, said requiring a supermajority vote of the County Commission in order to raise tolls would put the Expressway Authority’s ability to issue bonds in question.
“It raises uncertainty in the bond market,” he told the Transportation and Economic Development Appropriations Subcommittee Tuesday before the panel passed the measure.
Gomez said MDX would have to disclose the new approval process when issuing debt, and it could result in higher borrowing costs that would be “born by the motoring public in Miami-Dade.”
Gomez and other speakers also objected to changes the legislation would make in the board structure, reducing its members to nine from 13 with four appointed by the County Commission and four appointed by the governor. The ninth member would the non-voting local district secretary of the Florida Department of Transportation.
The authority currently has seven members appointed by the County Commission, five by the governor plus the FDOT representative.
Opponents of the proposed board changes felt it would give the governor too much influence over appointing members more interested in the state’s interest even though they must be local residents.
The bill would also prohibit board members from serving on other transportation-related organizations, which some people also considered onerous because elected officials and appointees have broad perspectives serving on metropolitan or regional planning boards.
Most of the same requirements are included in SB 772, though a provision that would have prohibited the Expressway Authority from issuing new debt was stripped from the bill on Thursday before it was approved by the Transportation Committee.
Miami-Dade County Commissioners passed a resolution March 18 opposing both bills.
During a discussion then, MDX executive director Javier Rodriguez said that the authority was preparing to go to the bond market to issue debt for the work program, which includes continuing work to convert facilities to open-road tolling.
Rodriguez said the A-rated MDX had already approached rating agencies for the upcoming bond offering in hopes of getting rating upgrades.
“We have put everything on hold” because of the pending legislation, he said.
The Expressway Authority board selected toll increases that would bring South Florida’s tolls to 17 cents per mile, which is in line with other urban expressways in the state, he said.
The authority runs five toll expressways with 31 route-miles.
In response to objections about raising the tolls, which go up in July, Rodriguez said the board has required the development of discount or cash-rebate programs for frequent users of the expressway system.
The controversy driving the legislation is mostly about tolls, and has also raised questions about toll facilities in the area owned by FDOT and Turnpike Enterprise.
FDOT in February raised tolls on the I-95 express lanes in Miami-Dade, which are also subject to congestion pricing.
MDX has $1.25 billion of outstanding revenue bonds rated A-minus by Fitch Ratings and Standard & Poor’s, and an equivalent A3 by Moody’s Investors Service.