MDX "Cash Cow"?

Toll revenue could be used to fund new rail transit, but that doesn't fit with libertarian views that are gaining popularity. 

By John Dorschner

    If you're thinking of expanding transit in Miami-Dade and looking for a big pot of money, you have to listen at some point to Maurice Ferre.
    Now 80, he's the former mayor of Miami, longtime  Democrat, and dedicated civic leader. For the past decade, he's been on the board of the powerful Miami-Dade Expressway Authority, including a stint as its chairman.
Maurice Ferre

    Thanks to a new system using electronic charging for tolls, going both directions on expressways, MDX revenue is soaring -- from $125.9 million in fiscal 2014 to $179.5 million in fiscal  2015.
    Some transit proponents have been looking at that big nest egg and wondering if a lot of it could be used to fund off-discussed expansion of Metrorail or big increases in the number of buses.
    With that in mind, this reporter asked Ferre if MDX needed an act of the Legislature to allow  toll revenue to be used for mass transit.
    "The short answer is no," Ferre said immediately. "But ... "
    With that, Ferre launched into a lengthy discussion of transportation in South Florida -- how libertarian thinking has taken over among the expressway leaders, how he feels rail is out-dated and how the future may be best served by buses operating on managed lanes on the expressways.
    Many transit experts disagree with quite a bit of what he has to say. The Citizens' Independent Transit Trust has a new 2.0 Plan to build light rail or dedicated bus lanes in crucial areas of the county by cobbling together funds from a variety of sources. (More on this in a later post.)
    County Commissioner Xavier Suarez, who may be a candidate for mayor, has produced a television commercial  advocating the building of four new major rail lines and he'd like MDX tolls to pay for a hefty portion of that. 
.    But before we get to what others have to say, let's listen to Ferre.
    He said the main limits of MDX are set in place by bondholders. As of 2014, the agency was carrying about $1.5 billion in bonds, and before anything else, investors want to make sure that the agency is bringing in more than enough to meet those obligations.
    He added that MDX has a large agenda for the county's expressways, noting specifically the gargantuan re-do of the interchange of the Dolphin Expressway, the east-west 836, and the Palmetto, the north-south 826, in which MDX contributed $215 million to the $600 million project.

      Governor "Totally Opposed to Mass Transit"

    In a larger sense, the state's leadership is turning its back on transit funding. ip is betting its future on highways, not mass transit. "Can we do it?" Ferre asked of funding transit. "Absolutely. Does the governor want to do it? Absolutely not. He's totally opposed to mass transit."    
    Mayor of Miami for 12 years and also a state representative and county commissioner, Ferre said both state and local highway leaders have been swayed by the ideas of the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank.
    Ferre agrees with the foundation's idea that rail "is yesterday's technology." 
    Much better would be pursue the foundation's idea of building managed lanes on expressways so that buses could zoom along -- a much cheaper alternative to rail.
    The "managed lanes" proposal was contained in an 88-page paper entitled Increasing Mobility in Southeast Florida: A New Approach Based on Pricing and Bus Rapid Transit, published in 2012, available HERE

The Reason Foundation publication.
    To Ferre, the report's ideas make a lot of sense. "For some reason it's only the libertarian groups, like Reason and the Cato Institute, that have come up with plans.  But the facts are the facts."
    "Managed lanes" means expressway toll lanes -- in which cars can zoom along the special access strips by paying tolls, which increase depending on congestion.
    Ferre calls managed lanes "a major breakthrough in transportation." He said the I-95 express lanes were a first generation try at the concept -- the agency spends more than $1 million a year just replacing the orange tubes that get knocked down by motorists. Better are reversible lanes like those on I-595 in Broward.
    Ferre said that the managed lane concept has worked out well, with "independent, arms-length" studies showing that they reduced congestion -- in both the managed and non-managed lanes -- and increased toll revenue.
    Ferre said 75 percent of trips in Miami-Dade are one person in a car. "Can we afford to continue that? I don't think so. But I think the solution is very complex."
    The Reason study advocated expanding the managed lanes to the MDX system, plus upgrading "14 key arterials," and then using managed lanes on these expressways and arterials for "premium bus rapid transit ... rather than on politically dubious bus-only lanes" on streets, which might reduce the space available for automobiles.
    Ferre said that these expressway buses could be a luxury type with better seats and accommodations, to lure upscale commuters.
    (Glenn Garvin, a regulator contributor to Reason Magazine and, gave a preview of what the luxury bus service could be in a 2014 Miami Herald article, quoting the Reason Foundation's transportation policy director Robert Poole on how luxury bus service was the wave of the future. Poole also wrote the Reason Foundation's South Florida study.)
     Ferre estimated managed lanes that would accommodate buses could be done for under $100  million a mile, compared with $200-250 million for a mile of light rail and up to $400 million per mile for any extension of the elevated Metrorail.
    Ferre said MDX didn't have the funds for rail, even the oft-discussed light-rail BayLink along the MacArthur Causeway between downtown and Miami that Ferre estimated might cost $800 million to $1 billion.
    But on providing some funding for transit: "Can we do it? Absolutely. Does the governor want to do it? Absolutely not. He's totally opposed to mass transit." 

        Billions for Express Lanes for the Affluent?

   Ferre said that, in a little notice move, the Republican administration of Gov. Rick Scott is planning to spend $3.5 billion to $7 billion by 2020 to add express lanes to major roads throughout the state: Those who can afford it can zoom along while those with fewer runds or shorter commutes are stuck in regular lanes.

    "That's all based on the Reason Foundation," Ferre said. 
    Another strike against local mass transit:  Miami-Dade's transit costs are about 30 percent higher than transit costs in other major cities in the Southeast, Ferre said. He'd heard that one Metrorail line man earned $200,000 a year.
    A Miami-Dade Transit spokeswoman did not answer a request for a response.
    The MDX's board consists of 13 members. The county commission appoints seven (including Ferre). The governor appoints  five. The 13th is the Florida Department of Transportation District Six Secretary. 

                Suarez Plan: No More MDX            

       Commissioner Suarez thinks the best plan is do away with MDX. Earlier this month, he issued a statement noting the huge increase in toll revenue: "The agency has now become the biggest cash in the history of Miami-Dade county." Suarez would like the excess toll money used for mass transit.
    "The agency should be eliminated and merged into the Florida Department of Transportation," Suarez noted. After removing basic costs to maintain the expressways,
Xavier Suarez
Suarez estimates that $150 million annually would available to pay for up to $2 billion in bonds to fund four rail lines --  BayLink to Miami Beach, an east-west corridor from downtown  Miami to FIU, a north-south link along NW 27TH avenue and a South Dade extension Metrorail from Dadeland South.
    At a recent CITT meeting, Suarez pointed to the almost $600 million spent on the Palmetto-Dolphin interchange as a huge expense that shouldn't be repeated. "No more highways, no more interchanges," he said.

    Ferre responded that it would be "foolish" to abolish MDX.
"I was on the [county commission] when it was established."    
    The commission took the action because the toll money of Miami motorists was too often used to build roads in the Panhandle and other places, Ferre said. The expressway board is needed to "prioritize" what's most important to Miami-Dade and to make sure local revenue is used locally. "I'm opposed to destroying what has been a successful operation," Ferre said.

    MDX spokesman Mario Diaz did not respond to Suarez's stance, but he did expand on what Ferre said: MDX could be used to fund mass transit.
    "Legislation is not needed. MDX has in the past and continues to participate with Miami-Dade Transit on capital projects. One example is the Dolphin Park and Ride MDX is designing and constructing in Partnership with FDOT and MDT [Miami-Dade Transit]," Diaz said in an email.
    While MDX doesn't fund operating and maintenance costs, "MDX has on many occasions stated that should MDT identify a capital project where MDX can participate as a partner in, we would look to do so."

                    A Transit Activist's Take on Tolls
       Adam Old, a transit activist, said tolled lanes "can make sense to discover the price people are willing to pay for wait-free personal transportation, but they are not an equitable solution where we have no other options. 
       "We have forced the cost of living in the urban areas up with massive amounts of required parking per unit, tax-rebates and other subsidies to luxury developments and huge amounts state and county spending on automobile infrastructure on arterial and local roads. 
       "Meanwhile we have subsidized low-cost housing on the fringes: we have moved the urban development boundary again and again, and continue to build more subdivisions further and further away from our employment centers. These are unwalkable and unconnected to transit, forcing people to use cars to commute," Old wrote in an email. 
       "If the only way in or out of Miami is tolled, then that toll is a hidden cost of living in the far suburbs. In places like Europe, tolled lanes can be a valuable because they are a higher-priced alternative to an equitable transit system, but in Miami, until the transit infrastructure exists to give people an option to not pay those tolls, then they are of benefit mostly to the wealthy.
         "I also think they are mired in politics and there is very little transparency and accountability for how they are tolled. We see MDX returning excess profits to high-mileage drivers," Old wrote. "How does that make sense from an urban planning or a traffic reduction standpoint? Those excess collections should go directly into transit to give people an alternative to paying those tolls."

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