If you headed to Fort De Soto Park last week and were stopped on the Tierra Verde drawbridge, chances are good that someone handed you a pamphlet being distributed to motorists idling on the bridge as boats cruised through the channel.
The pamphlets were produced by a group outraged by proposed hikes in tolls that will finance the replacement of three of the Pinellas Bayway System bridges. Opponents of the toll increases have launched a Web site and printed pamphlets urging folks to attend a public workshop Wednesday hosted by the Florida Department of Transportation to discuss toll rate increases.
Opponents aren't holding back on how they perceive the DOT's plans.
"They want to move fast. They hope the repeal can slip through unnoticed by voters," the literature warns.
Okay. But just to be fair, the Doc has received news releases from the DOT about the workshop, which doesn't really seem like the strategy of an organization trying to operate under the radar.
The Stop Toll Hikes pamphlet lists current tolls and proposed fees that may go into effect July 1.
The current toll to cross the Bayway is 50 cents for east-west traffic and 35 cents (the original 1962 fee) to head south to Fort De Soto. The hikes would bump the Bayway plaza tolls to $1.25 (or $1 for SunPass holders) and the Fort De Soto toll to $2.50 ($2 for SunPass holders). The cost of an annual pass is proposed to increase from the current $50 per year to $125. A third column ambiguously labeled "later" lists proposed hikes to $3.50 for the Bayway bridges, $7.25 to access Fort De Soto and $256 for an annual pass.
In advance of the hearing, we talked with DOT officials and asked if the information in the literature being distributed is accurate. It is, but there's more to it.
The "later" toll rates are proposed for the year 2038. Planning for a project as huge as replacing three bridges (the reason for the proposed toll hikes) requires revenue projections — in this case, decades ahead. But since "later" could mean a year from now, it's good to know it's 30 years from today.
DOT officials say they want to get the bridges replaced soon.
Scott Collister, the DOT director of transportation development, said the cost of replacing the east-west Bayway bridge is $85-million, and the price tag for the north-south bridge connecting to Tierra Verde is $87-million. The bridges need to be replaced because they are 46 years old. The hydraulic drawbridge equipment has worn out, and the concrete deck surfaces have taken a pounding. The bridges were last inspected in 2007 and are safe, but maintenance costs to the tune of $40-million loom if they are not replaced within five years.
Officials say it makes more sense to replace the bridges with higher, four-lane fixed spans that will ease traffic flow and won't need to be opened to accommodate boats.
But what about opponents' charges that the bridges were paid off a long time ago and that more than $18-million of Bayway toll money was "borrowed" and used elsewhere?
Collister said the original bonds on the bridges have been paid off and the excess money has been used to cover maintenance and operating costs. The rest has gone into an interest-bearing account to save for the construction of the replacement bridge. The balance is currently $37.4-million. In 1995, the Legislature directed the DOT to use $18.8-million from the Bayway toll revenue to widen Blind Pass Road, which is a state road.
Collister said he is looking forward to the workshop Wednesday and hopes residents come out for it.
What: DOT workshop of toll rate rules affecting the Pinellas Bayway System
When: 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday
Where: St. Pete Beach Community Center, 7701 Boca Ciega Drive, St. Pete Beach
Info: Contact Lee Royal, DOT community liaison administrator, District 7, at 11201 N McKinley Drive, MS 7-400, Tampa, FL 33612. Or call (813) 975-6427 or 1-800-226-7220.
Until next week, happy and safe motoring!
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