Whatever happened to the SunPass mess? We follow up memorable 2018 stories

A view of the I-275 northbound Sunpass lane at the Skyway Bridge photographed from a reporter’s car.  (WILL VRAGOVIC   |   Times)
A view of the I-275 northbound Sunpass lane at the Skyway Bridge photographed from a reporter’s car. (WILL VRAGOVIC | Times)
Published Dec. 28, 2018

Over the past year, major problems with the electronic toll collection system SunPass left many Florida motorists with whopping bills — or none at all. Plans were announced to revamp an aging Tampa mall and build greenhouses in St. Petersburg to grow medical marijuana. Tariffs hurt a bay area boat builder while unhappy homebuyers slammed a well-known developer.

We covered all of these stories in 2018. Here is a look at what has happened since we first reported on them.

SunPass customers still waiting

Florida drivers who use the electronic SunPass tolling system are still waiting on their SunPass bills more than six months after the third-party vendor stopped processing transactions.

That's because the Florida Department of Transportation hasn't sent out Toll-By-Plate invoices for the charges drivers racked up since the processing stopped.

"Until we are 100 (percent) confident that invoices are accurate, Toll-By-Plate invoices will not be sent to customers," Tom Yu, spokesman for the Florida Department of Transportation, said in a statement Dec. 21.

This summer, Florida's SunPass system went from a convenience to a disaster when Conduent, the vendor who runs the system, stopped processing charges June 1. The vendor, which is a spinoff from Xerox, has a history of botching the toll payment processing for its customers, having made similar missteps in at least five other states.

Conduent is currently being investigated by the Florida Inspector General.

Customers, Yu said, will not be charged late fees on the Toll-By-Plate accounts and "will continue to have the Flex Pay option to pay their invoices."

Malena Carollo

Amicably resolved

In 2017, Tim and Hyun Kim contracted with Aspen Venture Group to build a home in northeast St. Petersburg. They were so unhappy with the results they rapped Aspen on the Internet and put up a banner last spring saying, "I have to fix my new house.''

The Kims initially refused to let Aspen make repairs, saying they didn't trust the company. But after a story appeared, the couple agreed to let workers on the property to correct code violations. The Kims have since put the house on the market for $675,000; they paid Aspen $445,475 for it but said they spent thousands of dollars more remedying problems. Aspen's James Landers, who had accused the Kims of "online terrorism,'' said the matter was amicably resolved.

"We used this experience to review all our practices and improve our business in several areas,'' Lander said in an email. "We will continue to do this towards our goal of being the best infill residential developer in the area.''

Susan Taylor Martin

Future of old mall takes shape

The future of the University Mall near the University of South Florida captivated readers when developer RD Management began to give a fuller picture of plans for its so-called "Uptown District."

Chris Bowen, the lead project developer, envisions something that isn't a mall at all, but a "research village" anchored by science institutes, dynamic offices and co-working spaces. Retail, he said, would still be a key feature, but the district would become a new city center and extension of what's happening down Fowler Avenue at USF.

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So how do you turn a fading suburban mall into a hot destination? Bowen is still early in the process, but construction could begin early in the new year.

Bowen said he hopes to have Hillsborough County's approval on RD Management's development and land use plan by the end of the second quarter of 2019. It's a "critical process," but one he said that is going well so far.

Before that approval, Bowen said his team is beginning some initial development on the west side of the mall, where JC Penney vacated in 2005. Bowen said that demolition could begin in late February, making way for a walkable neighborhood development with offices, apartments and fitness and entertainment outlets.

Sara DiNatale

Tariffs raise costs, depress sales at Bertram Yachts

Ten months after President Donald Trump tweeted that "trade wars are good, and easy to win," Bertram Yachts in Tampa is feeling the effects of tit-for-tat tariffs in two different ways.

The cost of Chinese-made hardware, electronics and other components that go into the company's yachts has risen as a result of the Trump administration's new tariffs on imported Chinese goods. Some vendors have told Bertram CEO Peter Truslow they are trying to delay passing on the price increases on the assumption that the tariffs will be lifted, but "we think we're going to see more price increases," Truslow says.

Meanwhile, Bertram's foreign orders are in hibernation, thanks to a 25 percent tariff on American-made yachts exported to Europe.

Truslow watches for signs that the two sides are making progress on lifting the tariffs, but isn't seeing any.

"Essentially, there's been no change," he said. "We find this very frustrating."

In July, Bertram had two prospective buyers, one in Monaco and another in Italy, hitting the pause on ordering yachts because the tariff would have added $1 million to the vessels' $4 million purchase price. Since then, two more overseas buyers — "very serious qualified customers," Truslow says — likewise are holding off.

"We do not believe that these buyers have bought another yacht," Truslow said. "We believe that we'll get those (sales) once the tariffs are lifted. But for the life of me we can't figure out why they haven't been able to resolve the trade dispute."

Bertram has not laid off any of his 90 employees, domestic orders remain healthy and the company's yacht-service business is good, Truslow said. Still, when Bertram's move from Miami to Tampa was announced 2½ years ago, officials were talking about the move adding 140 jobs.

But at the moment, Truslow said, "when you look at the export environment," further growth is something "we're looking at more carefully."

Richard Danielson

Slow growth on cannabis front

Despite neighborhood opposition, a St. Petersburg panel in August approved plans to use a former warehouse site to grow both medical marijuana and hops for craft brewing.

"The hops side of our business is doing very well,'' Oscar Mouton, a partner in the venture, said in an email. "We completed the greenhouse, got all of the permits signed off by the city and (approximately) 4,500 plants went in the ground in late October.''

Not so fast, though, on the cannabis. In 2016, Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment legalizing the use of medical marijuana with a doctor's okay, but lawsuits and bureaucratic hassles have kept the state from issuing any new licenses to grow and distribute it.

"Tallahassee has made the licensing process anything but easy,'' Mouton said, "but we're pressing forward on the medical cannabis front."

Susan Taylor Martin