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Expressway authority battle speeds into court

The lawsuit alleges that the bill would violate Miami-Dade County home-rule powers.

A circuit judge has scheduled a hearing Friday in a lawsuit quickly filed by the Miami-Dade County Expressway Authority after lawmakers passed a bill that would eliminate the authority and transfer its responsibilities to a new agency.

The authority filed the lawsuit Sunday in Leon County circuit court, two days after the Legislature gave final approval to the bill, which drew heavy debate from Miami-Dade lawmakers. While the bill has not formally been sent to Gov. Ron DeSantis, the authority is asking Circuit Judge John Cooper to block it.

The bill (HB 385) would create a new entity, the Greater Miami Expressway Agency, to replace the Miami-Dade County Expressway Authority. The lawsuit alleges that the changes are unconstitutional because they would violate home-rule powers in Miami-Dade County and would impair contracts.

“Under the challenged legislation, one of the most important functions of Miami-Dade County government — operating the most heavily traveled expressway system in the most densely populated region of the state — will be taken, its local officers terminated, and its assets seized by an act of the Legislature that passed through a process without public hearings in Miami-Dade County and without affording a meaningful opportunity to be heard by the citizens solely impacted by the unlawful act,” the lawsuit said.

Cooper is scheduled to hear arguments at 10 a.m. Friday on a request for a temporary injunction aimed at blocking the bill. Circuit Judge Kevin Carroll on Monday rejected a request to issue a temporary restraining order on an emergency basis.

“This court has difficulty envisioning a circumstance justifying relief against the Legislature and/or the governor without giving either branch of government the opportunity to be heard,” Carroll wrote. “This case is not that circumstance.”

The case names as defendants DeSantis, the Florida Department of Transportation and the Florida Transportation Commission. As of Wednesday morning, the defendants’ attorneys had not filed arguments, according to a Leon County court docket.

But the Miami-Dade County Expressway Authority has long spurred arguments in the Legislature, with lawmakers also passing measures aimed at the authority in 2017 and 2018, according to the lawsuit. Among the issues surrounding the authority has been toll rates.

Senate sponsor Manny Diaz Jr., a Hialeah Republican, said during a floor debate Thursday that changes are needed for Miami-Dade residents. He said that “there comes a time when constituents are tired of talk.”

“I am concerned with all of the constituents that have had enough with the conditions of the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority,” Diaz said. “I am concerned with a county government that has taken over an independent authority that was created by the state to serve the citizens of Miami-Dade.”

The bill would make numerous changes, including seeking a 10-year freeze on toll rates and developing a rebate program for Miami-Dade motorists who use the SunPass tolling system, House sponsor Bryan Avila, a Miami Springs Republican, said during a floor discussion before the bill passed Friday.

But the lawsuit alleges that the bill would violate Miami-Dade County home-rule powers that date back to 1956. Also, it contends that the bill would impair contractual rights granted to the authority.

The News Service of Florida provides journalists, lobbyists, government officials and other civic leaders with comprehensive, objective information about the activities of state government year-round.

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