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The jig is up for scofflaws on the Selmon Expressway

TAMPA — High-speed cameras are making it tougher to skip out on tolls on the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway.

The agency that operates the 14-mile all-electronic highway installed cameras at exit ramps in September to photograph vehicles not equipped with SunPass transponders. The result: More toll scofflaws are being forced to pay up.

"Maybe we did pick up a little traffic, but I think the numbers we're seeing are better because we have better equipment to detect the traffic," spokeswoman Sue Chrzan said.

The agency, the Tampa-Hills­borough County Expressway Authority, can't say for sure how much more revenue it's capturing using cameras. A sample analysis based on tolls collected by both cameras and the SunPass system shows a 6 percent bump in overall traffic during October, right after the cameras went live, and January.

Chrzan said the uptick is due partly to technology. Before the cameras, the authority relied on cash tolls and SunPass. Motorists with transponders could drive right through the unmanned toll plazas, but drivers without SunPass were forced to dig through their pockets to feed the coin baskets, causing backups and delays.

Folks without enough coins — as well as those who simply refused to pay anything — could continue through the toll plaza because the authority had no way to track them down. With the cameras, however, the authority can photograph their license plates and mail a bill.

The system, called pay-by-plate, isn't foolproof, though, and capturing even a meager toll can sometimes take months. Some drivers simply refuse to pay. Others argue that they weren't behind the wheel when the toll accrued, even though they own the vehicle.

After issuing three notices, the bill goes to collections. If the toll is still unpaid after 35 days, the scofflaw is taken to court.

"Sometimes we get moms who say, 'I wasn't driving, my son was,' " Chrzan said. "But under Florida law, the toll goes to the owner of the vehicle, not the driver."

Chrzan said about 70 percent of those who get their first bill pay up. Only a handful of cases end up in court.

The cameras have forced scofflaws to get creative.

Some people try to obscure their license plates with mud, grease or paint. Chrzan recalled one man in a pickup who lowered his tailgate to hide the license plate. But even that method produced limited results.

After a few skipped tolls, the camera operators were able to identify the truck and the driver.

"We knew what he looked like and what his truck looked like, and one day we saw him. We got into a truck and followed him and got his license plate," she said.

Times staff writer Jack Nicas contributed to this report.

The jig is up for scofflaws on the Selmon Expressway 03/26/11 [Last modified: Saturday, March 26, 2011 9:35pm]
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