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Pensacola Beach Cashless Tolls To Start In April

Sandra Averhart
WUWF Public Media

Escambia County is another step closer to implementation of all-electronic toll collection at the Bob Sykes Bridge Toll Plaza.

With District 2 Commissioner Doug Underhill absent, the board voted 3-1 to approve an agreement with the Florida Department of Transportation for the SunPass and toll-by-plate system, with all-electronic operation to begin in April.

The move aims to ease traffic congestion on Pensacola Beach, but there are ongoing concerns cashless tolls will become a barrier for some.

“I cannot support going all-electronic,” said District 3 Commissioner Lumon May, who cast the lone no vote.

“I think it causes problems. With Florida SunPass, a $1 ticket becomes a $30 ticket and a suspended license. I respect that (reasoning for the change), but I just can’t in good conscience support - in the positions that I’ve taken and the constituents that I represent - vote to eliminate the dollar toll. I adamantly disagree with you.”

“Just to clarify, their license will not be suspended. It will not be suspended,” proclaimed District 4 Commissioner Robert Bender, cutting in.

Despite Bender’s claim, the Florida Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles website states that the Clerk of Court may request a driver’s license suspension for failure to pay.

Regardless, May continued with other issues related with the switch to a cashless toll system.

“But, you’ll still get a ticket,” he asked.

“If they don’t pay, yeah,” responded Bender.

“And, you’ll still get a fine and you’ll still get a lien,” said May, pointing out that this change is hard to justify to the people in his district, who are largely low-income and oppose the change.

“I’m working with people in Gonzalez Court, that it’s difficult to be able to get on ECAT some days,” he said. “They’re still a cash society. Those who live in the pockets of poverty are still a cash society. And, we talk about beach access, I look at the beach, that there should not be anything that prohibits anyone the opportunity to come to what God has given and that’s the beach. And, certainly, if we take away the dollar or the four quarters, it brings about a barrier for a certain part of the population.”

“I think you guys need to consider that there are other citizens in this community that don’t have the luxury of being able to have a SunPass or to pay that toll,” said Diane Krumel.

As founder and leader of Save Pensacola Beach, she’s passionate about preserving beach access for the public. “In a way, what I foresee happening is that this becomes a beach for the ‘haves and the have-nots.’

Like Commissioner May, Krumel is concerned about the potential, long-term, cumulative effects of unpaid tolls on the people who can least afford to have such problems.

I believe that this is going to be a way of intimidating people from going to our beaches. The word’s going to get out” Krumel said.  “It’s not going to happen right away, but the word is going to get out that, ‘Hey, oh my gosh, I just got this thing in the mail and I didn’t even go over there. I’m not paying that.’ Well someone borrowed their car or they did go over there, or it got put someplace, it got stacked with all their stuff. ‘I don’t have a stamp. I got to get an envelope. I don’t have a checking account. How am I going to pay for this?’”

On the issue of access for low-income residents, Commissioner Bender offered to provide a summer ECAT pass.

This move to an all-electronic toll system on Pensacola Beach has been in the works, since the commission’s vote of approval in December. 

With the toll plaza identified as a major choke point, Bender experimented with toll-by-plate collection and “flush” mode, involving no toll collection, to ease traffic congestion on the beach last summer. It worked.

As far as he’s concerned, it’s “full-speed-ahead.”

“We’ve been working with CMR, rolling out a campaign to allow everyone to know how they can pay the toll,” said Bender, referencing the county’s Community and Media Relations office.

Bender continued by listing the different ways residents can prepare themselves for the switch.

“Again, there’s the E-Pass from the Central Florida Expressway that you can request a sticker transponder for free; they don’t charge the $5 like Florida Sunpass,” said Bender, noting that either way setting up an account is required.

For those who want to pay cash, some convenience stories have kiosks in place, and Bender said the county is also working with the state to get more. Finally he reminded, “This is something the state will be going toward next year.” 

Information on plans for the switch and the different ways to access Pensacola Beach via the new all-electronic system is available on the county's website: myescambia.com.

Before the vote, Commissioner Jeff Bergosh restated his suggestion to eliminate the tolls altogether and make up the lost revenue with tiered paid parking on the beach. However, at this point, there’s no support for that.

Meantime, the county is moving ahead, planning new signs and road painting to help drivers navigate the new cashless toll system. The switch will take place in April, although no exact date has been determined.

Sandra Averhart has been News Director at WUWF since 1996. Her first job in broadcasting was with (then) Pensacola radio station WOWW107-FM, where she worked 11 years. Sandra, who is a native of Pensacola, earned her B.S. in Communication from Florida State University.