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County considers changes to toll system

By NATHAN MAYBERG / nmayberg@breezenewspapers.com - | Apr 13, 2021

The Lee County Board of County Commissioners on April 6 heard several options for changing its collection of tolls and making the electronic collection system permanent, which could potentially mean an increase in tolls for some and an increase in fees.

No decisions were made.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the county’s tolls for its bridges have been collected electronically, replacing toll booth collectors due to health risks.

While that has made for smoother traffic and fewer drivers scurrying for bills and change, there was an approximate $4.5 million loss in revenue from the drop off in vehicle traffic during the height of the pandemic, though that may be recoverable through stimulus funds, according to county staff.

There has also been an increase in the amount of tolls that have not been collected due to the lack of toll booth collectors and drivers passing through electronic tolls who are not signed up with a transponder.

A proposal favored by County Manager Roger Desjarlais and county staff would provide free transponders for residents to place on their vehicles, so that tolls would be billed electronically and to maintain the electronic toll system.

Desjarlais and Department of Transportation Director Randy Cerchie also floated proposals that would raise the motorcycle fee from $1 to $2 at the Cape Coral and Midpoint bridges, while also doing away with the second car discount.

Commission Chair Kevin Ruane said the second car discount adds up to $200 in Sanibel for a year’s pass.

Assistant County Manager David Harner said for those who do not use the transponder, there “should be a premium” for passing through the tolls. Cerchie suggested a $2 fee be added to the bills that are sent to those who do not use the transponder.

The county was charging fees before the pandemic to those who passed through the electronic tolling without a transponder, but now every vehicle is passing through the electronic tolling. Now that there are no toll collectors, drivers are just receiving bills with the cost of the toll.

Commissioner Brian Hamman said he wants to make permanent all-electronic toll collection.

Ruane said “we don’t have a choice” due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I don’t think we feel comfortable putting people back in the booth right now,” he said.

Cerchie said the county’s toll system is interoperable with all of Florida, Georgia and North Carolina’s electronic tolling systems and by the summer will sync with E-Z Pass, which is used in more than two dozen states on the East Coast.

The toll at Cape Coral and Midpoint was last raised in 2007 from $1 to $2. The toll to Sanibel rose from $3 to $6 in 2004.

Asked by Hamman as to what happens to people who do not pay outstanding toll balances, Cerchie said he is working with the Lee County Clerk of the Courts about whether to do a registration or license suspension.

Desjarlais said the Clerk of the Courts has asked the county to find an alternative to chasing people who face $2 and $10 fines.

“The recovery rate is not very good,” he said.

Commissioner Cecil Pendergrass said there has to be some type of fine to ensure people pay the tolls, though he said raising the motorcycle rate may lead to questions about why it was necessary.

Ruane noted that the E-Z pass system will suspend licenses for non-payment, which he said is an incentive to pay the tolls.

Ruane added that he wants the public to know there is still debt on the bridges and that there will be more future debt with other bridge projects.

Ruane said he wants more information from staff about figures presented concerning how much of the tolls have been uncollectable.

Desjarlais said staff would work on a financial analysis and bring forward a proposal at the county’s next meeting on April 20.

If the commissioners approve changes to its toll system, there would be a public hearing.