Published on Friday, October 27, 2006
in the Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel
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 shield the numbers.
Fed up with toll cheats, troopers swarmed turnpike plazas across the state Thursday, 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 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 like 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 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 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 totaling $20 million in lost revenue, toll operations director Evelio Suarez said. That's up $9 million from two years earlier.
Officials attribute the increase to the rapid expansion of SunPass lanes.
In 2003, there were 143 SunPass lanes statewide. Today, there are 208 SunPass lanes for drivers who pay tolls electronically.
One driver Thursday morning stopped in the Cypress Creek plaza's SunPass-only lanes, displaying confusion after realizing he had driven into the wrong lane and wanted to pay with cash.
"Go! Go on!" Reyes shouted and waved at the driver.
From motorists who were pulled over, the highway patrol heard such excuses as "I left my SunPass transponder in another car," "I don't do this very often" and "I'm driving a rental car that doesn't have SunPass."
Troopers say their aim is to catch the repeat offender, not the casual turnpike driver who makes an honest mistake. One call to the turnpike's SunPass center verifies whether the driver has a history of toll violations, said Chief Jim Lee, commander of the turnpike's highway patrol unit.
"We obviously can't be at all plazas 24 hours a day. This is just a deterrent," Lee said.
Each SunPass-only lane is equipped with a blue light that flashes when a driver doesn't pay or if his or her SunPass isn't working. Nearby troopers and state motor carrier officers swoop in as soon as the light goes on.
Troopers also are being given "hot lists" of repeat offenders that indicate the time of day they're traveling through toll plazas and a description of the cars.
Desiree Russano, of Boca Raton, said she hoped troopers wouldn't take the place of cameras, which are supposed to catch toll cheaters.
"I thought that's what the cameras were there for," Russano said. "I've driven by accidents or people stranded by the side of the road and there were no troopers in sight to help."
Reyes said off-duty troopers or those working overtime are participating in the crackdown, assuring that troopers aren't pulled from regular duties.
Jim Ely, the turnpike's executive director, said the turnpike will switch to a tougher fine program over the next few months. Currently, drivers caught on camera don't get a $25 fine until the third violation.
Under the new system, first-time violators have 21 days to pay the toll before a $25 fine is issued. Violators will have 30 days to pay the fine before the matter is turned over to the court. At that point, a judge could suspend the motorist's license or vehicle registration.
It's illegal to obscure or alter license plates in Florida, although the law doesn't specifically mention photo-blocking sprays created to foil cameras that catch toll cheats.
"This is not a gotcha program. This is all about fairness for everyone," Ely said.