Judge rules south Florida's toll road agency can proceed with lawsuit

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The Miami-Dade County Expressway Authority can legally proceed with a lawsuit challenging a state law that dissolved the toll road agency, according to a ruling by a Florida judge.

In a two hour hearing Thursday, Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper denied motions to dismiss the suit by the Florida House of Representatives and the Florida Department of Transportation, and decided that the expressway authority has standing to continue with its challenge of House Bill 385.

Gov. Ron DeSantis signed HB 385 July 3. The act immediately abolished the Miami-Dade County Expressway Authority and replaced it with the Greater Miami Expressway Agency, an entity that has tighter state oversight and must focus on toll reduction.

While the expressway authority had filed suit before the bill was signed, the House and FDOT had argued in their motions to dismiss that the Expressway Authority, or MDX, couldn’t file a lawsuit because it’s a state agency and the authority ceased to exist on July 3.

Cooper, however, said those issues don’t matter if the bill is unconstitutional because Miami-Dade County has home rule powers that are granted as part of an amendment to the state constitution. The amendment says that the Legislature can’t pass laws that only affect the county.

“The Supreme Court has always said that you cannot enact a law pertaining just to Miami-Dade County,” Cooper said. “It’s very clear to me…that if it applies only to [Miami] Dade County it’s unconstitutional.”

The state’s attorneys argued that Miami-Dade County didn’t use its home rule authority when it established the expressway authority by ordinance in 1994.

Cooper said it wasn’t necessary for the county to establish the authority with its home rule powers, and cited another Florida Supreme Court case supporting his contention.

“That’s simply not the law in Florida,” he said. If an entity is set up under the county’s general rules, “then the Legislature may not pass a bill that modifies that. I can’t change the law.”

The home rule issue and its effect on the bill will be argued in detail at a hearing Aug. 9. The hearing will be on MDX’s motion for summary judgment seeking a ruling that HB 385 violates the county’s home rule amendment.

On Thursday, there were brief discussions about bond rating downgrades that have arisen because of the legislation. MDX has about $1.5 billion of debt outstanding. Cooper said he had read rating agency reports.

“They are not happy with the uncertainty,” he said.

Part of that uncertainty is because HB 385 failed to contain a transition plan even though MDX’s bonds and assets were transferred to the Greater Miami Expressway Authority on July 3. A full governing board has yet to be appointed.

DeSantis made his appointments July 3, but Miami-Dade County and the Miami-Dade Transportation Planning Organization have said their members may not be appointed until October. That issue was raised in court Thursday but no action was taken.

For now, the MDX has been authorized to continue making payments to employees and vendors, and its staff remains intact.

Cooper took care of a host of motions Thursday. He allowed Miami-Dade County to enter the case as a friend-of-the court, or amicus curiae. He denied a motion to dismiss the suit that pertained to the home rule issue.

FDOT, which had sought to extricate itself from the case, will remain a party to it. Cooper said the agency should be in the suit because an FDOT representative sits on the governing board and the agency is a signatory to a contract that transferred expressways to the MDX. The governor was dismissed.

Eugene Stearns, an attorney who represents the MDX, said the only issue left to resolve concerns the constitutionality of HB 385.

The merits of that issue will be argued at the Aug. 9 hearing. Cooper said he intends to rule from the bench on the motion for summary judgment that day, to allow parties to “take the next step,” which would be an appeal.

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Toll revenue bonds Transportation industry Lawsuits Downgrades Ron DeSantis Miami-Dade County Expressway Authority Miami-Dade County Florida