The free ride on most of Florida's toll roads ends this morning, with state officials estimating that the storm-driven moratorium on tolls could wind up costing the highway system as much as $30-million in lost revenue.
While the losses are not covered by insurance, they are not expected to slow any future road-building projects so long as the state gets through the rest of the storm season unscathed.
Reinstating tolls that had been suspended during the recent hurricanes began on Tuesday and was scheduled to be completed - with the exception of two toll bridges in the Panhandle - by 6 a.m. today.
While Tampa Bay residents say it was nice being able to drive anywhere without paying tolls, they are more than willing to ante up again because it sends a signal that the region is out of hurricane danger, for the moment.
"Not having the stress of a hurricane bearing down on me is worth whatever I pay in tolls," said Theresa Alvarez of Tampa, a daily commuter on the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway. "If fact, if it would mean no more storms this year, I'd be willing to pay double."
Toll operations throughout the state have been an off-again, on-again process since Aug. 12 to facilitate evacuations, first for Hurricane Charley, then for Frances and finally for Ivan. The only facilities on which tolls remain suspended are the Garcon Point and Mid-Bay bridges in the Panhandle.
Tolls resume today on:
The southbound lanes of Florida's Turnpike (tolls on the northbound lanes resumed Tuesday).
The Veterans Expressway.
The Suncoast Parkway.
The Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway.
The Sunshine Skyway bridge.
The Pinellas Bayway.
The Polk Parkway in Lakeland.
Tolls also resume today on the portion of Interstate 75 known as Alligator Alley and on the southbound lanes of the Sawgrass Expressway in Broward County (tolls in the northbound lanes there resumed Tuesday).
Tolls on Orlando-area highways resumed Tuesday.
"The total loss in toll revenue to date is $28.1-million, and by the time everything is open again, that total could be up in the neighborhood of $30-million," said Joanne Hurley, spokeswoman for the Turnpike Authority, which is responsible for collecting tolls on most of the highways and bridges in the state where tolls are charged.
While tolls underwrite road maintenance and new highway construction, Hurley said the authority should be able to keep those programs intact.
"We think we can absorb this through our regular turnpike contingency program," Hurley said. "Every year, we (designate) revenues for just this sort of thing, and we don't think the losses will affect our work programs, barring anything more."
The losses were not covered by insurance.
"If we'd had structural damage, we had insurance to cover it, but not lost revenue," Hurley said.
The one major toll facility in this region for which the Turnpike Authority is not responsible, the Crosstown in Tampa, lost about $1.1-million in toll revenue. PerryDawn Brown, spokeswoman for the Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority, said the organization would seek help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
"We wouldn't be able to recoup that unless we can make application for federal assistance through FEMA," Brown said. "They might not pay it, but we have to ask."
In addition to the Crosstown losses, the Veterans Expressway lost $1.2-million in toll revenue, the Suncoast Parkway $626,000, the Skyway $838,000, the Bayway $137,000 and the Polk Parkway $719,000, Hurley said.
While toll suspensions varied from region to region, the average for the three storms equalled 15 days, she said, nine for Frances, three for Charley and three for Ivan.
Recovery vehicles, such as utility trucks and relief agencies, will continue using the toll roads free of charge for the foreseeable future.