Drivers upset over toll increases in Miami-Dade County

Some trip prices up as much as 300 percent

MIAMI-DADE COUNTY, Fla. - It's been months since open road tolling went into effect along the Dolphin Expressway (State Road 836), but the outrage over the adjustment in toll prices does not seem to be going away.

"It's bad. It's not good. It's not fair," said Karl Stark, a commuter, who had just exited the 836 on 37th Avenue.

"I can't afford to drive the 836. It's a luxury to drive the 836 anymore," said Carlos Garcia, a community activist who runs RollBackTolls.com.

The organization fights against what they say is a financial burden on drivers who use all five expressways operated and maintained by the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority.

"Students have been priced off the highways -- people with fixed incomes," Garcia said. "Now you have to pay actually two toll points at 17th Avenue in the westbound, which didn't exist before, at 57th Avenue westbound, which didn't exist before, and right there you're talking a $1.40 in tolls."

Garcia points out that a round trip from Interstate 95 to Florida's Turnpike was $2.50 prior to changes in tolls pricing.

After the changes, the same trip is $4.20, almost double in price.

Officials at MDX point out about 8 percent of drivers do the round trip.

Garcia said he is outraged the changes in tolls punish those living in specific communities. A driver who enters the ramp on 87th Avenue near Fontainebleau and Doral will pay significantly more.

Before the changes, a round trip from 87th Avenue to downtown Miami was a $1. Now it's more than $3 -- a 300 percent increase, Garcia said.

"A lot of people are crying foul, 'Why am I paying 300 percent more for the same exact trip?' The traffic isn't any better; the construction is going to last for (the) next five, six, seven years," said Garcia, adding that MDX should have kept the same rates and divided those among all the new tolling points.

"We feel that the board's decision was out of touch with the reality of the everyday commuter of Miami-Dade County," Garcia said.

It was a close vote back in March 2013, when the MDX board passed the changed in tolling prices with a 7-6 vote. One of the yes votes came from longtime board member Robert Holland, who was on the phone during the crucial vote.

That was not unusual for Holland, who is one of the worst when it comes to calling into meetings, according to attendance records provided by MDX. Records also show in his 10-year tenure, Holland was not physically at meetings almost half the time.

RELATED: Attendance record of MDX board members

"There are some meetings that I can't attend physically, but we're allowed to appear by phone," Holland, an attorney by profession, said. "And most of the meetings if I'm not there physically I do appear by phone."

Holland also pointed out the MDX board has a strong committee system and is closely in touch with staff on projects.

On attendance, Holland is not alone. According to records, the majority of board members with bad attendance records voted to increase toll prices.

"It's easy to say, 'No I don't want tolls. No, no, no.' Everybody can say no. I can say no. But how do we solve the problems?" Holland asked. "In a major metro area with huge transportation issues, you need solutions."

He said in his mind, increasing toll prices was the answer.

"All I want to do is come up with a solution," Holland said.

Board Chairwoman Maritza Gutierrez rejected the idea that the board is out of touch with reality.

"I think we're all living in tough times," Gutierrez said. "We have to look at what MDX did before and what it did now and what's it's doing in the future."

Gutierrez voted against the toll increase, but has since seen the benefits of the increase.

"The concern is, we either do it all now -- we construct all now -- or we wait and it takes five or 10 more years to construct it all," said Gutierrez, who was quick to remind the public that MDX had not increased tolls in nine years.

The changes are part of what MDX calls equitable tolling. Before the changed, MDX officials said only 55 percent of users paid a toll.

They argue the new system allows for fair tolling and ensures drivers pay for the segment of the road they use. The longer you're on it, the more you pay.

"This agency had to increase the toll, had to close the system, because we don't get any other source of funding from anywhere else," Gutierrez said.

Joe Diaz, a commuter, said he doesn't mind paying extra.

"It's not too bad. People like to complain about everything," Diaz said.

Ninety percent of tolls collected are used to build and maintain the five county highways.

Close to $60 million collected on the new system will repay new projects worth close to $900 million.

Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez said he wants to figure out ways to reduce the cost of MDX and return the money saved to the toll payer.

Gimenez does not control the board, but under a proposed state Senate bill, he may soon be in charge of it.

"In the eyes of many, this is a tax. It's a road tax," said Garcia, adding that commuters are avoiding tolls and instead using side streets and clogging roads. "We're not asking for them to get rid of the tolls. We're saying, 'Adjust the tolls, be fair with us. The impact to many people is unrealistic.'"

The MDX board recently voted for a toll freeze.

"That means there is no future increase in any of the tolls on MDX roads," Gutierrez said.

MDX board members are appointed by Miami-Dade County commissioners and Florida's governor. Members are not paid for the time they serve.

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