Residents throughout Tierra Verde, Isla Del Sol and the surrounding communities recently formed a coalition to fight the Florida Department of Transportation's plan to raise tolls along the Pinellas Bayway and bills in the House and Senate that would give it the jurisdiction to do so.
The DOT announced its intentions last November, explaining that increased tolls are needed to replace the roadway's two aging drawbridges.
The state plans to start construction of a taller fixed span bridge to replace the Pinellas Bayway Bridge in early 2009 with a similar replacement for the Tierra Verde Bridge to follow.
The total estimated cost is $180-million.
To fund the project, tolls would jump from 50 cents to $1.25 along the east and west portion of the Bayway and the toll leading to Fort De Soto Park would go from 35 cents to $2.50.
But the plan relies on two bills in the House and Senate that would transfer jurisdiction over the toll rates from the Legislature to the DOT.
If all goes according to the plans, the rate increase could start as early as July 1.
"The FDOT is just waving their arms and hoping that people won't contest it and they're wrong," Travis Jarman, a board member of the Bayway Isles Homeowners Club, said.
Neighborhood associations from the island communities sandwiched between the toll booths and the surrounding neighborhoods that rely on the Bayway for beach access are bonding together.
The coalition will likely include Lakewood Estates group and the Greater Pinellas Point Civic Association for a combined total of about 25,000 residents, Jarman said.
While the rate change would also apply to annual passes for Isla Del Sol and Tierra Verde residents, boosting them from $50 to $125, the $18-million removed from the Bayway's toll fund to pay for the widening of Blind Pass Road is what really has them up in arms.
It was removed from the fund by the Legislature in the mid 1990s and never returned.
"If you want the people who use the bridges to pay, I understand, but don't take our money to use somewhere else and still make us pay. It's not fair," said Ellis Hartman, president of the Bahia Homeowners association on Isla Del Sol.
Rep. Jim Frishe, who is sponsoring House Bill 287 that would transfer jurisdiction over the tolls to the DOT, said, "It's poor public policy to put tolls in the statute." He's working with Sen. Dennis L. Jones, who is sponsoring a similar bill in the Senate, to replace the bridges and return the money that was taken from the fund.
"This is a situation where this area had money taken, and when it comes time to use that money, they want it back. I don't blame them and I'm going to help them get it," Frishe said.
If those funds were returned, the proposed fees could drop, said Don Skelton, DOT District 7 secretary.
"Obviously if there is funding from some other source, then we would look to reflect that in the toll plan," Skelton said.
But while the $18-million is a sore subject with residents, there could be greater implications to anyone who uses the Bayway.
It was initially estimated that east and west tolls could reach $3.50 and Fort De Soto Park's toll could reach $7.25 by the end of the bond issue, if bonds are needed to fund the entire construction project.
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker sent a letter to the DOT expressing concern over the missing $18-million and the possibility that a trip to Fort De Soto Park could eventually cost more than $10.
"It seems to me that that would really keep a lot of families from being able to enjoy Fort De Soto," Baker said.
Other concerns include fair access to the beach and the effects on businesses that rely on the Bayway to deliver to their customers.
"It's not just a Bayway resident issue. This affects the small businesses along 34th Street in St. Petersburg and the small businesses along Gulf Boulevard in St. Pete Beach," Jarman said.
Barbara Hawkins, president of the Greater Pinellas Point Civic Association, agreed.
"The toll doesn't just affect the people who live out there," she said. "Whenever anyone from this neighborhood is heading out to the beach or Fort De Soto, the first thing we do is hop on the Bayway."
Nick Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 893-8361.