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Council officially opposes DOT proposed toll plan

By Staff | Jul 22, 2009

For the second time in seven days, Lee County Department of Transportation Deputy Director Paul Wingard discussed with the Sanibel community their proposal to eliminate the LeeWay toll discount program in favor of a more simple process.

But on Tuesday, when Wingard was addressing the City Council and approximately 60 residents – instead of the 350 or so folks who turn out at the July 14 forum at the Sanibel Community House – interested in hearing more about the DOT’s plan, the threat of potential litigation between the city and county was initially unveiled.

Vice Mayor Kevin Ruane reminded Wingard that in 2004, when the city brought a lawsuit against Lee County in opposition of constructing a new bridge and causeway, the two sides settled the case by granting Sanibel 21 percent of the net proceeds after expenses from toll revenues. That percentage was surrendered in favor of LeeWay establishing a prepaid toll discount program for users of the Sanibel Causeway.

“We have a written document that says we’ll have a toll discount program,” said Ruane.

Last week, Wingard introduced the DOT’s proposal to eliminate all existing pre-paid toll programs. Under terms of the proposed plan, commuters who already own a transponder would pay a flat rate of $3 to cross the Sanibel Causeway ? a 50 percent increase from the current discounted $2 fee ? and $1.32 to cross the Cape Coral and Midpoint bridges, a 33 percent savings. People who do not currently have a transponder would purchase them for $10.

The plan also includes a $400 cap on collected tolls for users of the causeway. 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.

A large majority of people attending the July 14 forum opposed the DOT’s proposal, and Mayor Mick Denham indicated that the council would formally renounce the plan on July 21.

“I would fully support the vice mayor’s comments. They are correct and factual,” noted Denham, who introduced a resolution at the beginning of Tuesday’s session indicating their opposition as a governing body.

“The Sanibel City Council has, at every opportunity, made efforts to improve the business and political relationship between the City of Sanibel and Lee County and would regard any change in the current Sanibel Discount Toll Program to be severely detrimental to the productive and cordial business and political relationship between the City of Sanibel and Lee County currently being pursued by both the Sanibel City Council and the Lee County Commissioners,” the resolution reads in part.

The resolution passed unanimously, 4-0, with councilman Jim Jennings absent.

“I just have a real hard time with changing the tolls because we did have an agreement,” added council member Marty Harrity. “I’m opposed to any changes at this stage of the game.”

Fellow councilman Peter Pappas, who explained that he had heard that the proposed toll plan might mean the loss of between 200 and 300 jobs on the islands, said, “The county is going to do what it wants to do unless it is compelled by another entity not to do so.”

“This is anti-business and this is anti-labor,” he added.

Denham also took time to address Wingard directly.

“I think with one move by yourself that this could wipe away five years of work,” he said, explaining that since the settlement with Lee County the city has mended its relationship with the Board of Commissioners.

Several residents also addressed the council and Wingard, hoping to influence the proposal that will be brought to county leaders next month.

“These changes will have an adverse financial impact on many Sanibel residents, businesses and their employees. Especially hard hit would be the families with high school students who drive back and forth to school and after-school activities,” said John Harries, speaking on behalf of the Committee of the Islands. “The elimination of an annual fee as well as lowering the transponder cost to $10 will lead to widespread participation in the toll discount program by many occasional island and off-island visitors. The cost for a casual visitor will decrease by half, which will result in more traffic on the island.”

Resident Karen Storjohann supported the city’s availability to potentially sue the county in an effort to block the toll system from being altered, adding, “If they (Lee County) don’t get it, certainly it should go to the state attorney general.”

“The bottom line is – we’ve had enough,” said Yolande Welch.

Wingard, who told the council that the DOT would be discussing the issue at the county’s Management and Planning meeting on Aug. 3, also said that they will request at the next Board of County Commissions meeting (on Aug. 4) that the toll proposal be pushed back to their regular meeting on Aug. 25. They had previously stated that the plan would be presented on Aug. 11.

“Are we going to be able to make everybody happy?” Wingard asked. “Probably not.”

Islander Claudia Burns, in response to the suggestion that Lee County looks upon the revenue generated by the Sanibel Causeway as a “cash cow,” observed, “A dairy farmer certainly wouldn’t want to overwork his cash cow… and he definitely wouldn’t want to squeeze it dry!”