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State lawmakers drop plans for toll hikes on Pinellas Bayway

TALLAHASSEE — Higher tolls on the Pinellas Bayway? Not this year.

Deluged by complaints, two state lawmakers said Wednesday that they were dropping plans for hefty toll hikes on the route to St. Pete Beach and Pinellas County's famed Fort De Soto Park.

"This year? It's deader than a doornail — I mean it is flat, Black Flag dead," said state Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Seminole, who sponsored bills with Rep. Jim Frishe, R-Belleair Bluffs.

The change would have raised the cost of going to Fort De Soto Park from 35 cents to $2.50; travel to St. Pete Beach would have jumped from 50 cents to $1.25.

The decision appears to stall any replacement for the Bayway's two aging drawbridges. The House and Senate bills were part of a grand plan to finance the bridges' $180-million replacement.

But both lawmakers and local leaders made clear that tolls will continue to be part of any renovation plan.

"There may be people celebrating this action, but it's clearly just the first step," warned Bob Stewart, chairman of the Pinellas County Commission. "The next step is going to be the difficult one, and that's finding alternative funding sources & I think the tolls have got to be there."

Public outcry

Jones and Frishe have been inundated with concerns from local government officials and neighborhood groups, culminating last week in a public meeting where more than 400 residents showed up in protest.

"It was clear that the residents didn't want this to happen, and I think the legislators are listening to their constituents and they should be commended for that," said Travis Jarman, co-chair of the Citizen's Bayway Task Force.

Last month, as the Legislature prepared for its session, Jarman and other residents who live within the communities that can only be reached by the toll road began to organize.

The Citizen's Bayway Task Force eventually included about a dozen neighborhood associations and drew the support of the Council of Neighborhood Associations, a group representing more than 100 neighborhoods throughout southern Pinellas County.

Refilling toll account

Frishe said he disliked the perception that he favored higher tolls.

He said from the beginning that he and Jones want the state to commit to repaying $18.8-million it took in Bayway tolls to expand Blind Pass Road in the mid 1990s. With interest, Jones said, that would add $25-million to the $37-million sitting in a Bayway tolls account. But without an agreement about replacing that money, the lawmakers said the toll hike bills were unnecessary.

"Both Dennis and I told (the state Department of Transportation) & 'Don't even go out there and propose' " a plan that would only use higher tolls to fund the replacement, Frishe said.

But the agency did just that, and it went over with a thud.

Bridges need work

Unclear is whether any new money will emerge to replace the bridges.

"We're committed to helping," Florida Transportation Secretary Stephanie Kopelousos said Wednesday.

How the department would help, however, was unclear, as DOT District 7 Secretary Don Skelton could not be reached Wednesday.

Skelton previously said that if the bills failed, the Transportation Department would have to rely on the $37-million in the Bayway account, enough to cover repairs to the existing bridges but not enough to replace them.

A key state senator overseeing transportation spending warned that people elsewhere in Florida shouldn't have to bear the cost for new bridges.

"The residents have to understand they're going to have to pay for the bridges, maybe not in total but in some way," said state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey.

Nick Johnson can be reached at
(727) 893-8361 or nickjohnson@sptimes.com. David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

State lawmakers drop plans for toll hikes on Pinellas Bayway 03/19/08 [Last modified: Friday, March 21, 2008 8:20pm]
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