Anti-Toll-Road Activists in Uproar Over Florida Fee Hikes

That sound dinging across the state this Sunday isn't just the litany of SunPass sensors going off on the Turnpike. It's the fists of outraged drivers pinging off the ceiling. Tolls on all state roads will rise by 25 percent this weekend — from $1 to $1.25 — sparking road-fee fury throughout Florida.

But that doesn't mean all drivers are taking the hike sitting down. In fact, a growing insurgency is targeting the agencies raiding drivers' wallets across the Sunshine State. Advocates such as Carlos Garcia, cofounder of the watchdog group Roll Back Tolls, argue that toll agencies discourage investment in public transit and create a de facto tax on drivers.

"If we all added up the money that we paid on tolls, there'd be a lynch mob," Garcia says.

Garcia's group focuses its ire on the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority (MDX). Although tolls on county roads such as the Snapper Creek and Dolphin expressways won't rise this week, he says Dade's drivers still pay almost twice as much per mile as cars traveling state-run highways.

That wasn't the point of MDX, which was founded in 1994. Former Miami-Dade Commissioner Arthur Teele, who championed the agency, argued that by generating new revenue and not sending profits to Tallahassee, MDX could pump money into improving local expressways.

Problem is, Garcia argues, MDX has been too successful. Fueled by billions in bonds on Wall Street, the agency's sole focus is on building ever more toll roads in Dade. In its first year, it took only $20 million from local drivers; last year, it was $121 million. There are dozens of MDX projects, aimed at increasing the number of tollable roads.

(MDX didn't seem too concerned about the complaints. The agency sent Riptide a signature-less email stating, "MDX  is funded almost entirely by toll revenue. We receive no state or federal funds." Several members of its board declined to comment.)

Garcia and others argue that Dade would be better served by models such as Dallas, where a percentage of tolls is earmarked for improving public transit.

"Other cities are saying, 'It's not good that we're always going everywhere in our cars,'" he says. "The reality is, MDX as it's currently set up can't work toward that goal."

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Gus Garcia-Roberts