By Jeff Odom
Drivers along the Veterans Expressway and Suncoast Parkway found themselves searching for extra change June 24, as the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) bumped the toll fee up one quarter.
The increased fee is expected to help generate nearly $1.8 billion in revenue from 2012 to 2016. A portion of the money collected will go toward widening the Veterans, which will expand in both directions from four lanes to eight. The project is slated to start construction in 2015.
However, even with the possibility of less roadway congestion and quicker commutes, some drivers, such as Jessika Moore, understand the need to add the lanes but aren’t pleased with the FDOT’s decision to do it now.
Moore cites the struggling economy as the main factor of her frustration.
“I think it’s a good idea to widen the expressway due to the amount of traffic during rush hours, but if they raise the toll price, I might have to consider taking (US 41) to work because it already cost me 85 (dollars) a month to drive to work,” said Moore, a recent criminology graduate from the University of South Florida. “On my yearly salary, I don’t wish to spend anymore than that on tolls.”
Under the FDOT plan, drivers who use the SunPass electronic payment system will not be affected on any mainline plazas and off-ramps on the Suncoast in Central Pasco County north to where the parkway originates in Hernando County. They will also pay the old price of 50 cents on the Veterans exit ramps, but will have to pay the quarter increase at both the Odessa Sugarwood and Tampa Anderson Road plazas.
The extra quarter will bring in nearly $11,800 daily from the stretch of the expressway between Van Dyke and Ehrlich roads and $8,500 from SR 54 to the Hillsborough County line.
Lutz resident Matt Sammon doesn’t mind shelling out an extra coin, if it means a smoother ride to his job at the Tampa Bay Times Forum in downtown Tampa. He added the increase could open doors for other transportation options in the future.
“If it actually relieves traffic, I’m fine with it,” Sammon said. “I probably burn 50 cents of gas idling in morning rush anyways. If it doesn’t relieve traffic, I’ll keep wishing that one day there’s light rail running down that median.”
Sammon also said that money has to be brought in by the state in order for projects like this to be in effect.
“For one, people need to realize that sometimes in order to carry out projects like this, you have to bring in money through higher tolls, taxes, fees, etcetera,” Sammon said. “You can’t just keep cutting taxes hoping everything levels out. But also, you’re looking at about one dollar a day additional round trip if you don’t have SunPass. People spend four times as much each day buying a coffee at Starbucks.”
Alex Lloyd said he is concerned with the price of gasoline rising again in the future. He added just because the FDOT expands lanes, it likely won’t deter rubbernecking in the case of a traffic accident.
“It’s gonna be a pain because of the gas prices still hovering around three-plus dollars,” Lloyd said. “Even if you widen the lanes to add on, you’re still gonna get an accident one day and traffic backs up because people want to sit there and go slow to see who it was.”
Turnpike spokeswoman Christa Deason told The Laker/Lutz News last September, the only way to get the money was to raise the toll, and added a delay in construction would be in order if it wasn’t enacted.
“Everyone knows it needs to be widened, and we’ve been getting public input on the best way to do that,” Deason said. “Traffic flow is poor during rush hour. Without this increase, we might have to wait a few more years to do anything about it.”
For more information on the toll increase, visit floridasturnpike.com/index.cfm or call the FDOT’s turnpike office at (800) 749-7453. For other information on FDOT, visit www.dot.state.fl.us.
—Editor Kyle LoJacono contributed to this report