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City meets with county to discuss toll increase

By Staff | Jun 3, 2009

During Tuesday’s City Council session, Mayor Mick Denham reported that he and Vice Mayor Kevin Ruane attended the Lee County Board of County Commissioners meeting on June 1, where they had an opportunity to discuss Sanibel’s concerns over the proposed bridge toll increases.

According to Denham, commissioners are considering adjusting the LeeTran toll discount program, which had initially been proposed by the county’s Department of Transportation last month. Collectively, revenues on the three county bridges – which includes the Sanibel Causeway, the Cape Coral Bridge and Midpoint Bridge – are down approximately five percent over the past year, a loss of almost $4 million.

Among the changes considered by the county would be a flat $3 per crossing fee along the Sanibel Causeway, which local officials are staunchly opposed to.

“While revenues on the Sanibel bridge are actually up, revenues on the Cape Coral bridges are down,” said Denham. “We don’t want to be lumped in with those other bridges. We want to be considered separately.”

Ruane pointed out that over the last 12 months, revenue generated at the Sanibel toll plaza has increased about one percent. (Revenues at the Midpoint Bridge are down six percent; revenues at the Cape Coral Bridge are down four percent, according to county statistics.) He suggested that county officials look into the possibility of refinancing outstanding bonds as a means of lowering their current debt.

Paul Wingard of the Lee County Department of Transportation introduced a proposal that would increase tolls some 14 percent. That suggestion prompted Denham to write a letter to Commissioner Ray Judah, requesting that the county consider:

Delaying any increases until the economic environment improves

Reducing operating costs as an alternative to increasing tolls

Re-scheduling or delaying pending landscaping and beautification projects until our economic climate improves

Utilization of the accumulated reserves rather than toll increases to meet debt coverage

Any final alteration of tolls should have a proportionally lesser economic hardship and financial burden to Sanibel residents and businesses, the most frequent and captive users of the causeway, than to the casual island visitor

“Your final determination of tolls for the Sanibel Causeway will directly impact the long-term viability of the Sanibel and Captiva islands as well as the property taxes generated on each,” Denham wrote in his May 22 letter to Judah.

While their meeting on Monday yielded no final verdict on the issue, City Manager Judie Zimomra noted that the commission will discuss the proposed toll increases at their Aug. 3 meeting.

“Stay cool, stay calm – this is only the beginning,” said councilman Marty Harrity, who offered that he understood what affect a toll increase would have on his business. If that happens, he added, “Silence won’t be an option.”

Ruane suggested that he could write a letter to Lee County Commissioners further emphasizing Sanibel’s desire to be considered a separate entity from both of Cape Coral’s crossings, and how reducing current debt through bond refinancing might render the idea to increase tolls unnecessary. His fellow councilors agreed to the notion and authorized Ruane to do so.

In other business, the council unanimously approved the extend the period to accept Requests For Proposals (RFPs) by an additional 90 days in order for the city to evaluate all of the submissions. Zimomra said that they have received 13 responses for nine vendors thusfar.

Also, a brief discussion of the city’s consideration to add a weigh station to Sanibel was held.

“I know that council has been inundated with e-mails, all of which are against this idea,” said Denham. “I don’t think that we received any letters in favor of a weigh station.”

Resident Karen Storjohann suggested that the city look into the possibility of adding a per axle fee for commercial vehicles at the Sanibel toll plaza, which is administered through the county. That would likely mean the city would pay the county a fee to collect those funds, however, it would also mean that no on-island structure would have to be built.

“The problem I’ve had with this historically is the location of it,” said Ruane. “If we were able to do this with a toll structure, then I’d be open to it.”

“For the moment, in regards to discussion of this issue, I think that it’s dead,” added Harrity, after which the council moved on to another topic.