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Lots of questions, few answers at DOT’s toll structure meeting

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 Board of County Commissioners, all existing pre-paid toll programs would be eliminated. He explained that there would be no change in the cash tolls collected at the Sanibel Causeway ($6) or either the Cape Coral and Midpoint bridges ($2).

Under terms of the proposed plan, commuters who already 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 Coral bridges, a 33 percent savings. People who do not currently 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 still alter some figures before presenting the final proposal to the BOCC on Tuesday, Aug. 11. “We’re still changing things.”

One of the new details of the proposed changes includes a $400 cap on collected tolls. Monitored electronically, transponder users would pay $3 per crossing until they reach a $400 plateau. Once they reach that cap figure, drivers would not pay any more for the vehicle that transponder is assigned to for the remainder of the year.

However, several residents pointed out that a family using two vehicles – who are 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 their displeasure in the DOT’s proposed 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 Wingard whether revenues on the Sanibel Causeway were down over the past year. When Wingard responded that revenues were actually 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, which was 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 as it is presently proposed.

Towards the end of the question-and-answer session, 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 DOT was to meet Wednesday evening in Cape Coral to conduct a similar meeting. They will return to Sanibel on Tuesday, July 21 where they will make a formal presentation of their proposal to City Council. That meeting will begin at 9 a.m. at MacKenzie Hall.