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Islands chamber of commerce reacts to proposed toll hikes

By Staff | Jun 11, 2009

If it was looking for a fight, the Lee County Department of Transportation has certainly found one.
The opponent: the Sanibel & Captiva Islands Chamber of Commerce.
At their June 1 meeting, Lee County commissioners discussed details of a plan — submitted by the DOT — to raise tolls at three county bridges, including the Sanibel Causeway.
News of the plan quickly drew the attention of the Sanibel City Council, which was represented at the commissioner’s meeting by Mayor Mick Denham and Vice Mayor Kevin Ruane. Both spoke out against the idea during the council’s June 2 session.
Almost as quickly, the chamber offered its reaction.
“I was disturbed to hear at a commissioners’ meeting last Monday that they are considering a plan to eliminate the discount tolls applied to regular Sanibel Causeway users,” said chamber president Ric Base. “It will be replaced with a much higher flat rate.”
Commissioners are considering a plan which would raise the fee for persons enrolled in the LeeWay toll discount program to a flat rate of $3 per trip to cross the Sanibel Causeway. At the Cape Coral and Midpoint bridges, the rate would be $1.30 per trip.
According to Base, most staff working in Sanibel’s many tourist businesses live off-island. They travel daily using the only route possible — the toll bridge. Most local employers buy an annual pass for their employees costing $400: on average $1.60 per day for 50 working weeks.
“The proposed new toll will be $3 per day. Based on average calculations, this will mean an 87.5 percent increase,” he said. “Our first estimate of the added yearly cost to Sanibel businesses is in excess of $500,000. It will be impossible for us to absorb this. Employment will be severely affected and our ability to meet tourists’ expectations of efficient, attentive Sanibel service will be irreparably harmed.”
Speaking at Tuesday’s Sanibel Planning Committee meeting, Denham said the city is being as proactive as possible in lobbying for the commission to reconsider making any adjustments to the LeeWay transponder program.
“Our recommendation is to approach this with care because the suggestion came from the DOT, not from the commissioners,” he said. “But I also think we have to be squeaky wheels on this issue.”
Island chamber members are hoping that county commissioners will want to revise the plan when they learn of the damaging effect that it will have on Sanibel and tourism in Lee County. Chamber staff is gathering facts about the effect of the increase on Sanibel businesses to present to the county as soon as possible.
“Moreover, this does not take into account the effect on the many Sanibel residents who need to do business in Fort Myers daily, high school children who travel by car for extracurricular activities and teachers and other professionals who provide vital island services,” Base said.
Denham noted that the commission is expected to discuss the toll hike during its Aug. 3 meeting, so gathering as much public comment as possible regarding the issue is key to combating the plan.
“In an era where everybody knows that revenues are down, this is not a time to be thinking about increasing tolls,” he said.