Toll device won't zap lane backup
By JEAN HELLER
© St. Petersburg Times,
It's smaller than a deck of cards, saves time and money and, despite the initial $50 cost, people are scarfing them up at the rate of 3,500 a week.
They are SunPass transponders, those white plastic boxes that attach with Velcro onto windshields behind rearview mirrors and allow drivers to zip through tollgates without stopping on Florida's major toll roads and bridges.
Prepaid tolls are automatically deducted from the transponder's balance, and when the balance gets low, it can be replenished with a credit card on record with the state. Using SunPass on some roads, such as the Skyway, even gets drivers a discount on their tolls.
In the Tampa Bay area, the roads where SunPass is an option include the Sunshine Skyway bridge, the Pinellas Bayway, the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway, the Veterans Expressway and the Suncoast Parkway.
SunPass is supposed to eliminate the irritation of sitting in a long line of traffic to pay a toll. But that assumes that a dedicated SunPass lane is available and accessible.
That isn't always the case.
At the west tollgate on the Crosstown in downtown Tampa, for example, all the lanes will accept SunPass, but there are no lanes for SunPass only. Therefore, SunPass customers must still sit in line behind people waiting to pay tolls in the traditional manner. There are dedicated SunPass lanes at the east tollgate near Brandon on the Crosstown.
In St. Petersburg, the dedicated SunPass lane on the westbound Bayway is a fourth lane added to the extreme left of the three-lane road. The add-on lane is so short that in heavy traffic, SunPass customers can't move into it until they have spent time idling in one of the non-dedicated lanes. When the beach traffic is heavy, the waits can stretch to 15 minutes.
"In times of heavy traffic, the whole purpose of the SunPass is defeated," said Pat Campbell of St. Petersburg. "Everyone is gridlocked."
Marian Pscion, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Transportation, said her agency is aware of the complaints but cannot do anything about them.
"If we moved SunPass to one of the other lanes, the tollbooth people going to and from their posts would have to cross a lane where traffic doesn't stop," Pscion said. "That's too dangerous."
And the dedicated lane can't be extended without running it into left turn lanes for two residential developments and Eckerd College.
"I don't like to say we'll never be able to resolve the problem, but we don't see any way to do it right now," Pscion said.
Sal Secondo, spokesman for SunPass in Tallahassee, said that with the exception of the dedicated lane on the Bayway, he hears few customer complaints about the system.
"We had some people complain after we converted the Skyway bridge to SunPass that they were stuck with some of the old tokens," Secondo said. "We gave people months of warnings that they should use up the tokens, but some of them still said they hadn't heard."
Statewide, there are 450,000 transponders on the road, which amounts to about 20 percent of the drivers using the toll roads. State officials would like to see that rise.
"Our first goal was to get it up and running," Secondo said. "Now that it's everywhere, we're looking at ways to market it to those who don't have it. We'd like to see it on 100 percent of the vehicles."
That might not be an attainable goal, but in Canada, he said, an even more advanced system has a 70 to 75 percent subscription rate.
There, canopies stretch across the roads at toll points. Cars drive under them in any lane at any speed and tolls are deducted. SunPass customers are told they must slow to 25 miles an hour.
That admonition, Secondo admits, isn't entirely true. Daring drivers have gone through at speeds as high as 45 and found that the system still works.
"Actually, our own tests show you can go even a little faster than that," Secondo said. "But we ask for safety reasons that you don't try it."
Getting a SunPass
There are several ways to buy and replenish a SunPass transponder:
Call 1-888-TOLL-FLA (1-888-865-5352) and use a credit card.
Check www.SunPass.com. Transponders can be ordered online, and the site also has information about other purchase options, including mail order.
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From the Times state desk
From the state wire