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Bayway toll plan will be aired tonight in St. Pete Beach

The Florida Department of Transportation will hold a workshop tonight to discuss plans to increase tolls along the Pinellas Bayway amid growing resistance from neighborhood groups throughout the county.

The forum is from 6 to 8 p.m. at the St. Pete Beach Community Center, 7701 Boca Ciega Drive.

The Citizen's Bayway Task Force, a group of resident organizations from Tierra Verde, Isla Del Sol and neighboring areas that organized to fight the plan, has gained the support of the Council of Neighborhood Associations.

As planned, the tolls would more than double, as early as July 1, to pay for replacing the Pinellas Bayway and Tierra Verde drawbridges.

The project is estimated to cost $180-million, but the plan depends on proposed bills in the state House and Senate that would transfer authority from the Legislature to the DOT to set the tolls.

The main goal of the Citizen's Bayway Task Force is to fight the bills proposed by Rep. Jim Frishe and Sen. Dennis Jones.

"The big test will be if Rep. Frishe pulls the legislation," said chairman Travis Jarman.

Since organizing several weeks ago, the group has handed out 12,000 fliers along the Pinellas Bayway. It seems the message has been well received.

"From CONA's standpoint, we're supporting the neighborhoods because this affects all of us," CONA president Barbara Heck said. "Just start to think of all the banks that are out there, the shops that have to use the Bayway. Any service industry has trucks going out there two or three times a day."

CONA represents 111 neighborhood associations in south Pinellas.

The DOT's plans have also drawn fire from some of the area's politicians, including county Commissioner Robert Stewart, who called the hikes "extremely exorbitant."

The tolls along the east and west portions of the Bayway would go from 50 cents to $1.25, and the toll to Fort De Soto Park would rise from 35 cents to $2.50.

By the end of the bond issue, in 2038, the rates would increase to $3.50 at the east and west toll plazas and $7.25 at Fort De Soto Park.

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker also criticized the increases and cited the $18.8-million that the Legislature removed from the Bayway Toll Account to widen Blind Pass Road in the mid 1990s, money that was never returned.

A joint statement from Frishe and Jones said they are working to bring that money back and have received estimates of possibly $23.9-million, a figure that includes estimated interest, in negotiations with the DOT.

"We're just looking to see if that's a possibility," DOT District 7 Secretary Don Skelton said.

If the bills don't pass, the DOT would be forced to scrap the current plan and rely on the money in the Bayway Toll Account, about $37-million.

"That would just about cover the amount that it would take to rehabilitate the bridges," said Skelton, who added that the bridges would still eventually need to be replaced.

The workshop will include a video presentation of the DOT's proposal and an outlet for residents to ask questions and comment.

Reach Nick Johnson at nickjohnson@sptimes.com or 893-8361.

Bayway toll plan will be aired tonight in St. Pete Beach 03/11/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 11, 2008 5:27pm]
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