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If you don't pay a toll on parkway, DOT says relax


© St. Petersburg Times,
published July 1, 2001

It's a quarter to free on the Suncoast Parkway. Do you know where your toll-taker is?

I didn't, so I called the Florida Department of Transportation to ask. Check out what I was told by Joanne Hurley, a most helpful and pleasant public information officer.

The DOT does not staff the 25-cent on- and off-ramp toll plazas on the Suncoast Parkway between the hours of 8:30 p.m. and 6:30 a.m., or on weekends. Apparently it just doesn't pay to have a person stationed there around the clock. But last week the DOT took its you're-on-your-own approach to the next level, announcing there will not be an attendant at the ramp plazas at the interchange at County Line Road, which separates Hernando and Pasco counties, any time of the day. That trend toward ghost booths has already hit toll roads around Orlando, and it probably will extend to the Suncoast Parkway's terminus at U.S. 98, just south of the Citrus County line, when it opens later this summer.

While it is comforting to know the DOT is saving taxpayers a few bucks on personnel, the absence of toll-takers does create a problem:

What do you do if you don't have exact change for the 25-cent toll?

The answer, according to Hurley, is relax.

"We understand that there will be times when people come upon a situation like that. When it happens, go through (the toll booth)."

Hurley said motorists should never back up, turn around, or leave their vehicle and ask another motorist for change. That is dangerous, she said, and taking too long to search through a purse or the console for a quarter "can be irritating to other drivers." It's best just to move on, Hurley said, and make change at the next main-line toll plaza, which are staffed 24 hours every day.

What throws a scare into most people are the signs that read "violators will be prosecuted" for not paying the toll, and that the penalty is a $100 fine.

Not to worry, Hurley said. The DOT is only interested in "people who are repeat offenders. We're not looking to prosecute people who happen to find themselves without coins."

Moreover, Hurley said, that is the DOT outlook at all toll plazas, not just ramp plazas, everywhere in the state.

But, lest anyone get the impression the DOT doesn't give two cents about its two bits, they should know that the signs warning motorists they are being videotaped are the real deal.

"Our toll operations folks look at the film, looking for repeat violators," Hurley said. (Hmmm . . . wonder why the DOT has enough employees to watch videotapes of cars going through toll plazas all day, but not enough to staff all its exit ramps?) Occasionally they bust someone.

A guy from Orange County, Wesley Ridgwell, was charged in November with illegally breezing through the EPass express lane (called the SunPass on the Suncoast Parkway) 705 times. The camera watchers identified him by his late-model Honda with Virginia vanity plates that read "JST CRZY."

Go figure.

Hurley wouldn't draw a line between an innocent mistake and a scofflaw, but assured me that the threshold is high. Besides, the vast majority of people obey the rules -- or at least they want to obey the rules, she said.

"There are a lot of honest people out there. I get calls from people who have a guilty conscience, or are afraid they will get in trouble (for not paying the toll). They leave messages with the make and model of their car, their license plate number, and the time they went through the plaza, explaining that they didn't mean to break the law," Hurley said. Some even mail the quarter to the DOT, or promise to pay double next time.

On the flip side of that coin, some nosy people tattle on motorists whom they believe skipped a toll, providing similar detailed information on her answering machine. Hurley laughs at the notion the DOT might actually try to investigate those reports to track down a quarter. "Most do it unintentionally, They don't have the correct change, or they follow another car that has EPass or SunPass, thinking that's the lane they should be in."

The bottom line, she says, is that the DOT is interested in people having a "happy, pleasant journey." They want to encourage people to always carry change and pay the tolls, but not if it means compromising drivers' safety.

So, next time you find yourself at a vacant toll plaza, and putting your hand on a quarter is a hassle, don't stress out; take a free ride on the government. In one way or another, they've done the same to you.

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