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Islands question plan to alter toll discounts

By Staff | Jul 15, 2009

More than 350 islanders packed the Sanibel Community House on Tuesday afternoon, gathered together to hear the Lee County Department of Transportation’s proposed revisions to the LeeWay toll discount program and ask questions about whether the plan would wind up costing residents and businesses more money.
Paul Wingard, deputy director of the DOT, explained that if the proposed changes are approved by the Lee County Board of County Commissioners, all existing prepaid toll programs would be eliminated.
He said there would be no change in the $6 cash tolls collected at the Sanibel Causeway nor at the $2 cash tolls at the Cape Coral and Midpoint bridges.
Under the terms of the plan, commuters who own a transponder would pay a flat rate of $3 to cross the causeway — a 50 percent increase from the current discounted $2 fee — and $1.32 to cross the Cape bridges — a 33 percent savings.
Commuters who do not have a transponder would purchase them for $10.
“Some of these details we’re still working on,” said Wingard, who noted that the DOT may alter some figures before presenting the final proposal to commissioners Aug. 11. “We’re still changing things.”
One of the details of the proposed changes include a $400 cap on collected tolls.
Monitored electronically, transponder users would pay $3 per crossing until they reach the $400 plateau. Once the cap is reached, drivers would not pay any more for the vehicle that transponder is assigned to for the remainder of the year.
Several residents pointed out that a family using two vehicles — and currently paying a combined $600 for unlimited trips per year — would have to pay $800 annually under the revised toll program.
Throughout the 90-minute meeting, the standing room only crowd voiced its displeasure with the plan, questioning why the county would consider raising costs for residents, businesses and employees in an already devastated economy.
“Is it fair that Cape Coral residents pay $1.32 to get home, but residents of Sanibel have to pay $3?” asked Paul Reynolds.
Local business owner Billy Kirkland asked whether revenues on the Sanibel Causeway were down over the past year.
When Wingard responded that revenues were up, someone in the crowd yelled, “Then why are we being asked to pay more?”
“In saving operating costs for Lee County, it may not seem like anything to you today,” Wingard said. “But in the future when you come to us and ask us to cut our operating costs, we will already have dealt with this issue.”
Resident Steve Maxwell asked how much the county might expect to save under the revised toll plan.
Wingard estimated the annual savings between $100,000 and $200,000, which again caused the audience to moan angrily.
Answering another inquiry, he noted that the DOT spent approximately $100,000 to conduct the feasibility study completed by the Center for Urban Research Institute.
“We have made millions for Lee County since the first bridge opened in the 1960s,” said island icon Sam Bailey. “What has Lee County done for us?”
Another resident asked if revenues at the Sanibel crossing were sufficient to cover operating costs, maintenance and service bonds related to the bridge.
Wingard replied, “Yes,” resulting in another furor throughout the crowd.
“We have to look at what’s best for all of Lee County, not necessarily what is best for one individual community,” said Wingard, who explained that 83 percent of county residents would benefit from the plan.
Toward the end of the meeting, a member of the audience asked how long the $400 cap would remain in place.
While Wingard did not have an answer to the query, he did offer, “I can tell you that the cap is only as good as the politicians that approve it.”
The Lee County DOT will meet at 6 p.m. today at La Venezia, 4646 S.E. 11th Place, to conduct a similar meeting.
Staffers will return to Sanibel on Tuesday, where they will make a formal presentation of the proposal to city council. The meeting will begin at 9 a.m. at MacKenzie Hall.