tampabay.com

Bagging SunPass' problem

By LORRIE LYKINS
Published March 19, 2006


When is the SunPass not so sunny?

When an apparent glitch in the device leads to unwarranted toll violations.

For those who don't know, the SunPass is part of Florida's electronic toll collection system for the Pinellas Bayway that is administered by Florida's Turnpike Enterprise. The SunPass allows drivers to prepay and travel some toll roads without having to stop at manned toll collection lanes.

Drivers can buy SunPass transponders that work for all roads in the SunPass system. They can also pay a flat fee for a transponder that only works on the Pinellas Bayway.

Reader Chuck Husick wrote in a few week weeks ago about these unwarranted toll violations, which he pursued vigilantly.

Husick says he has more than a pedestrian understanding of the transponder problem because he is an electronics engineer.

Here is the problem, according to Husick's e-mail: "A design deficiency in the SunPass system results in the issuance of toll violations to drivers who use the Pinellas Bayway transponders and drive across the Skyway or pass through any of the other toll plazas served by SunPass.

"As the driver passes through a toll lane, paying the toll in cash, the system senses the presence of the transponder in the vehicle, recognizes that the transponder has a zero balance, photographs the vehicle and triggers the issuance of a notice of violation."

The FTE's solution is a bag that closely resembles the silver wrapper for a toaster pastry. Motorists are instructed to remove their transponders from their windshields and place them in the FTE-provided "shield bag" when passing through tolls that do not correspond with the transponder they have paid for.

The shield bag will prevent the toll system from detecting the transponder in the car and issuing a nonpayment violation.

The other option is to purchase a new transponder that is usable on all SunPass-served roads.

Husick is disgusted by the options. And it's not really about the money, he says. He says trying to put the transponder in the shield bag while driving would be unsafe for motorists.

Joanne Hurley, community relations coordinator for the FTE wrote in an e-mail last week:

"SunPass customers receive detailed written instructions in their customer agreement and user manual stating that "when paying with cash, you must have your transponder in the provided silver-gray RF shield bag.' Pinellas Bayway customers are aware that their commuter or resident SunPass transponder is never operable at other toll facilities. Therefore, any decision to pay cash at another toll facility should occur well in advance - not when approaching a toll plaza.

"When he (Husick) entered SunPass dedicated lanes - not cash lanes - on the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, the transponder signals were not valid and toll violations occurred," Hurley said.

Hurley said that Husick was offered the option of returning his transponder to be reprogrammed to recognize his Pinellas Bayway System discount and be operable on toll facilities statewide, which he declined.

Hurley said that Husick paid for the toll violations and was then sent a shield bag for future use.

Husick said that the FTE's statement that he used the SunPass only lanes is inaccurate.

"I used the pay lanes and, of course, paid the toll or I would not have been permitted to continue."

Also, Husick said he was never informed of the need to use shield bags.

Husick said that an FTE employee told him last week that the FTE is looking into the possibility of providing drivers who use the Pinellas Bayway transponder with a dual transponder that they could use for other toll plazas, if they deposit money into the account.

"Although this may be progress, it misses the essential point. The toll plaza interrogator equipment needs to be able to tell the difference between a Bayway transponder and a regular transponder that has zero dollars in the account. In a world where . . . tags on goods going into and out of Wal-Mart can be remotely read, it does seem within the scope of the technology for SunPass to achieve the same capability," Husick said.

Hurley encourages SunPass customers to contact the toll free customer service line at 1-888-865-5352 if they have problems with their SunPasses.

And out of curiosity, I'm wondering if any other readers who are users of the Pinellas Bayway transponders have received erroneous violation notices for not paying tolls on the Skyway or other toll roads.

The lights are back on

Motorists who wondered about the recent darkness on the Howard Frankland Bridge are relieved to have illumination on the roadway again.

One reader wrote in an e-mail last week: "Why are the lights on the westbound Howard Frankland Bridge out for about 3 miles? They are even out going up to the Fourth Street exit. I drive this route at midnight from work and it is horribly dark."

The Doc took an after-dark drive out that way, and it sure was gloomy.

Kris Carson of the Florida Department of Transportation confirmed that the lights were out on I-275 from Fourth Street to the middle of the Howard Frankland on both sides for about a week.

A contractor who was doing a resurfacing project on I-275 hit a line which blew a transformer, Carson said. "Instead of waiting for the contractor to make the repairs, the DOT chose to get our maintenance contractor to complete the fix and then seek reimbursement from the contractor," she said.

Until next week, happy and safe motoring.

Please share your traffic concerns, comments and questions with Dr. Delay via e-mail at docdelay@yahoo.com