Even the Governor's team is calling out LowT Gimenez MDX "Arrogance"

Miami Herald:

Florida lawmakers pass bill to shut down MDX toll agency. Court fight is next.


Highlights:


The Florida Legislature on Friday passed a bill to disband the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority, setting up a court fight to save the toll agency and a test of whether a major expressway extension can survive the turmoil.

Legislation by two Miami-Dade Republicans, Rep. Bryan Avila of Miami Springs and Sen. Manny Diaz Jr. of Hialeah Gardens, already threatens to make borrowing more expensive for the 33-mile expressway system. This week, Standard and Poor’s downgraded the agency’s credit rating by one notch, citing political meddling in MDX governance. Wall Street lenders use credit ratings to determine how much interest to charge a borrower in bond sales. 

But the sponsors called their legislation needed reform. If enacted, the bill would replace the MDX on July 1 with a new toll agency with a similar governing structure and the same toll rates.

The MDX board infuriated motorists in 2014 when it ended toll-free stretches along its busiest expressway, the 836, and one to the north, the 112. Republican lawmakers from Miami-Dade have made the agency a target since then.

“There comes a time when constituents are tired of talk,” Diaz said Thursday before the Senate passed his bill on a 23-16 vote. “There comes a time when we have to act.“
With the House on Friday passing the Senate bill, the legislation heads to Gov. Ron DeSantis for a signature before becoming law. 

The bills aim for toll relief, but don’t mandate it. Provisions call for a 10-year freeze on tolls, but allow the board of the new Greater Miami Expressway Agency to overrule that rule with super-majority votes. The legislation also requests a more generous rebate program than what the MDX offers current toll payers, but allows the new board to determine the refund amount based on a required financial analysis. 

Avila and Diaz inserted the escape clauses to try to reassure S&P and the other credit-rating agencies, Moody’s and Fitch. Each has warned in recent weeks that the legislation weakens the toll agency’s ability to set toll rates without political interference. That, in turn, could make it harder for a new agency to generate enough toll revenue to make the road system a safe bet for Wall Street lenders.

“Those rating agencies were probably analyzing our initial proposal, as opposed to this proposal right now,” Avila said Friday, before the House passed his bill by a lopsided margin, 79-28. “We’re put in so many safeguards to make sure the bondholders are not affected.” 

MDX is already planning to sue to block enforcement of the law, calling it an unconstitutional unwinding of a 1996 agreement creating the agency, when it paid $91 million for the five former state expressways that make up its toll system. Along with the 112 and the 836 (the Dolphin), the MDX expressways include the Don Shula, the Gratigny and the Snapper Creek. 

DeSantis hasn’t publicly endorsed the bills, but his running mate went on television Sunday to praise them. Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez called the Diaz and Avila legislation “real reform” that was a response to an “arrogant” MDX that resisted demands for lower tolls. While in the Florida House, Nuñez, a Miami-Dade Republican, helped pass legislation demanding toll cuts and other changes at MDX. While MDX did cut toll rates to mollify lawmakers, it filed suit to challenge the legislation.

The legislation caps five years of increasing hostility between some Miami-Dade politicans and the MDX, after the toll agency infuriated motorists and became a political punching bag when it expanded tolling along the 836 and 112. The move ended the ability to drive for free along parts of both roads, and nearly doubled MDX’s revenue in two years. It now brings in roughly $250 million a year in tolls.

The House and Senate bills would replace the MDX with the Greater Miami Expressway Agency, a new entity with the same powers as the MDX and the same mix of nine members appointed by the governor and local elected officials. The legislation bars MDX board members from joining the new board for 10 years.

While the county commission appointed five members of MDX’s nine-seat board, the legislation that passed Friday gives the commission the ability to fill just two seats on the “GMX” board. Those appointees must come from areas of the county outside of city limits and within 15 miles of where most of the toll roads run — a definition that largely applies to Kendall.

Three would be appointed by the Transportation Planning Organization, a countywide board that includes all 13 county commissioners. The bill bars holders of county offices from filling the local seats, but mayors and city commissioners are allowed, Diaz said. An analysis of the bill by Miami-Dade’s lobbying arm concluded the provision applies to all elected office holders, not just at the county level. 

While the legislation has new restrictions on who can sit on the board, it preserves the existing split between Tallahassee and local appointees. The governor retains the right to fill three board seats. A fourth, the local Florida Department of Transportation director, is a member of the executive branch led by the governor.

Defenders of the MDX are warning that meddling by Florida lawmakers and the financial burdens brought on by the law threaten to doom the toll agency’s $1 billion plan to extend the 836 about 13 miles into West Kendall. 

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, MDX’s appointed chairman and the holder of one of the county commission’s five seats, wrote Gov. DeSantis on April 28 and cited higher interest costs and credit downgrades as reasons why the legislation would diminish “our ability to fund infrastructure.” 

It “is doubtful that the MDX work program and the Kendall Parkway can be completed and delivered within the next several years,” Gimenez wrote.

He asked the governor for assurances that the new law would bring no added expenses to the toll system through higher borrowing costs, though Gimenez’s own financial consultant has said the extra fees could cost $200 million over the next several decades.

One local Republican, Sen. Anitere Flores, cited the S&P downgrade in switching from a yes to a no vote on the Diaz bill in the Senate. “That means we have tangible proof that this will have a very real impact on the residents of my community,” Flores said of the higher interest rates that could come with the downgrade. “We have information that these are not scare tactics. These are very very real.”

During an interview with WLRN hours after the bill passed, Gimenez slammed the legislation for doing nothing but change MDX’s name and bring in new board members. Meanwhile, he said, the higher operating costs brought on by the downgrades will ultimately require more toll revenue. 

“It’s a $200 million payback,” he said. “And who pays for it? The toll payers of Miami-Dade County.”

READ Miami Herald: https://www.miamiherald.com/news/local/community/miami-dade/article229965309.html

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