Published on Monday, October 30, 2006
in the Orlando Sentinel
Scores of motorists wind up with hefty fines for trying to avoid a 75-cent toll.
Some people will do anything to avoid a 75-cent toll on Florida's Turnpike.
They hide from the cameras designed to catch them, obscure their tags with plastic sleeves, spray their plates with a photo blocker, even use their hands to veil the numbers.
Fed up with toll cheats, troopers swarmed turnpike plazas across the state last week in the start of a major blitz to reduce the number of toll evaders. Scores of motorists were snared in the first few hours of the sting, each netting an $87.50 fine in Broward County and $88.50 in Palm Beach County.
"It's either pay now or pay later," said Lt. Roger Reyes of the Florida Highway Patrol. "Would you rather pay 75 cents now or $87.50 later?"
Toll evaders drove off with $20 million in lost revenue last year, barreling through SunPass lanes even though they don't have the windshield-mounted device that automatically deducts tolls.
That infuriates drivers such as Carlos Marrero of Lake Worth, who bought SunPass for the convenience of not stopping at a tollbooth to pay cash.
"If they don't want to pay, then they shouldn't be using the turnpike," Marrero said.
About 4 percent of all turnpike drivers sneak through toll plazas without paying, which is about the national average of other toll roads, according to Florida's Turnpike officials. Only 1 percent are the most habitual offenders, evading the system dozens of times.
Although cameras are poised at every plaza to catch scofflaws by shooting photos of their license plates, that still hasn't stopped some drivers from skipping the tolls. Officials don't know exactly how many motorists don't pay, because some do it repeatedly and others periodically.
In the first six months of this year, the turnpike's top five offenders racked up 1,241 violations and owe $1,303.
The turnpike had 22 million unpaid toll transactions last year amounting to $20 million in lost revenue, toll operations director Evelio Suarez said. That's up $9 million from two years before.
Officials attribute the increase to the rapid expansion of SunPass lanes.
In 2003, there were 143 SunPass lanes statewide. Today, there are 208.
One driver Thursday morning stopped in the Cypress Creek plaza's SunPass-only lanes, displaying confusion after realizing he had gotten into the wrong lane and wanted to pay with cash.
"Go! Go on!" Reyes shouted and waved at the driver.
Troopers say their aim is to catch the repeat offender versus the casual driver who makes an honest mistake.