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Catching scofflaws a toll order

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Published on Friday, October 27, 2006
in the Palm Beach Post

To say some people will go to any length to avoid paying tolls on Florida's Turnpike is not a stretch.

Like the motorcyclist who extended his legs on the seat of the bike to cover the license tag with his shoes.

Or the passenger in the open hatchback of a car who reached down with his hand to hide the numbers on the license plate.

Those are just a couple of the scams captured by cameras at toll plazas around the state.

On Thursday, turnpike officials and the Florida Highway Patrol announced a crackdown on toll violators called "Toll Abuse. No Excuse."

The stepped-up enforcement is targeting hard-core offenders, turnpike spokesman Chad Huff said. Authorities have identified 11 people with 125 to 149 violations, nine with 150 to 174 violations, six with 175 to 275 violations and one with a staggering 489.

"If you go through the lanes without a SunPass in your car, then you are liable to get a ticket," said Chief Jim Lee, commander of the FHP's turnpike troop, who helped kick off the campaign from the Lantana toll plaza. "We want to not only make sure those that are violating are caught, but to act as a deterrent for future activities."

Accounting for unpaid tolls is part of the day-to-day operation of the state's 600 miles of toll roads and bridges.

The temptation has increased with the opening of more unstaffed and ungated SunPass lanes that allow drivers to pay electronically. The first full SunPass-only exit opened in July at the Beeline Highway in Palm Beach Gardens.

During the 2006 fiscal year, the loss was estimated at $20 million, about 3.5 percent of toll revenue collected for the year and much more than the $12.8 million price tag for a new interchange at Jog Road near West Palm Beach. That's up from $17 million last year and $11 million two years ago.

The dimes, quarters and dollars collected at toll booths are the state's main source of revenue for improvements to the turnpike system. The money is used as collateral to issue bonds to pay for new lanes, protective barriers next to canals and high-tech toll plazas.

FHP troopers and officers from the Florida Department of Transportation's motor carrier compliance office will spend more time at toll plazas, particularly ones with a high number of violations. Billboards, signs and banners will go up along the highway and at rest areas alerting motorists to the campaign. Word also will go out on radio traffic reports.

Other images from toll booth cameras show motorists using CDs and envelopes to cover their license plates to avoid being caught on video.

As part of the crackdown, the turnpike intends to change its rules, which give drivers two free passes. No action is taken after the first violation and a warning letter is sent after the second offense. After the third, the driver is sent a citation.

Florida is one of the few states that still uses "progressive enforcement," and needs to change to keep up advancements in electronic toll technology, said James Ely, the turnpike's executive director.

The new policy will offer no forgiveness. A notice will be sent on the first violation and if the money is not paid in 30 days, a traffic citation will be filed in court. The citation carries a $118.50 fine in Palm Beach County.

The turnpike also will ask the state legislature to toughen laws on unpaid tolls.

One proposal would add the overdue toll to the amount of the fine. Repeat offenders - those with 10 violations within a three-year period - would lose their license for 60 days.

Ely intends to address the problem at the national level as incoming president of the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association. He is planning a toll enforcement summit to share ideas.

"Ninety-nine percent of the people who drive Florida's Turnpike are hard-working, honest people," Ely said. "This program is designed for the 1 percent who don't pay. It's just not fair."

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