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Toll has retailers pointing fingers

By Staff | Dec 10, 2008

As both Sanibel and Captiva islanders celebrated the unofficial start of the holiday season here with last weekend’s Luminary Nights, restaurants and businesses dotting the candlelit thoroughfares appeared to be handling a steady stream of residents and tourists.

But according to some local business owners, what they saw last Friday and Saturday nights might not be the norm this coming “season.”

Across the United States, retailers have been suffering through a woeful economy. To nobody’s surprise, with unemployment on the rise, overall sales are down. However, the recent turn for the better in gas prices coming down below the $2 threshold has speculators predicting a better retail market in the coming months.

Here on the islands, that’s great news. But some businesses are pointing their fingers — once again — at what they consider the real reason that sales continue to spiral downward: the Sanibel Causeway toll.

Almost everybody on Sanibel knew that when the Lee County Board of Commissioners voted in 2004 to double the toll — from $3 to $6 — to cross the 2.7-mile span in order to help offset the costs associated with the nearly $140 million project, vehicular traffic would surely go down. It do so immediately the following year, with a 24 percent dip in crossings reported. According to statistics compiled by the Sanibel & Captiva Islands Chamber of Commerce, there were 10,000 fewer vehicles traversing the causeway in November of this year (174,000) than did so in the same month in 2007 (184,000). However, the number of people who visited the chamber’s Vistors Center rose from 9,800 in November 2007 to 13,500 last month.

So, do those stats reflect a higher number of people carpooling to Sanibel, or simply more folks frequenting the Visitors Center? Statistics like these are certainly subject to interpretation, but the bottom line is that businesses must be responsible for helping secure their own bottom line despite the $6 “barrier” they say is keeping would-be Lee County shoppers from crossing the causeway and spending their holiday dollars here.

One suggestion that we have heard is suspending the toll for a day, or a weekend or weekends, like the county has done in the past during the “Back To School Tax Amnesty” period. But if they did that for Sanibel, wouldn’t Cape businesses expect the same for folks crossing the Cape Coral and

Midpoint Memorial bridges? The county relies too heavily on the income generated from those tolls, so that suggestion would never come to fruition.

Perhaps a better idea would be to offer an incentive for day-trippers to bring their toll receipts with them when they shop on the island — i.e., spend $50 and receive a $6 rebate. If not a complete reimbursement of their toll, maybe a 10 or 15 percent discount could entice new business from off-islanders.

Another idea would be to have a raffle entry for a nice prize offered for each toll receipt brought in by shoppers. Merchants could even pool together on an idea like that, with even more prizes available. The more retailers visited, the more entries gained.

Or how about suspending the beach parking fees for a few days before Santa makes his arrival? Surely the people who come here to enjoy a day at the beach would be coaxed into a lunch or dinner here, and partake in some serious shopping, too. The possibilities are nearly endless.

True, the $6 toll might give some county residents and visitors pause for thought before coming over the causeway for a day of shopping, but given the right incentives, it could make for a very prosperous holiday season for


— Reporter editorial