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Published on Thursday, October 26, 2006
in the Miami Herald

Josť, Josť, wherever you are: The Florida Highway Patrol is hunting for you -- and thousands of prolific toll-dodging scofflaws just like you.

The South Florida man, whose last name the FHP won't disclose due to privacy laws, ranks No. 1 on the Florida's Turnpike ignominious list of motorists who flagrantly blast through the electronic SunPass toll lanes without a transponder.

Josť has run the gate at least 589 times on the turnpike, cheating the state out of $543.95 in tolls and untold thousands in civil fines that he has failed to address in traffic court.

He's not alone.

Toll-dodging deadbeats like Josť cost the turnpike nearly $22 million last year, up from $17 million in 2005 and $11 million in 2004, said turnpike executive director Jim Ely. And those figures do not include millions more that are lost by local expressway authorities in Miami, Tampa and Orlando.

To combat the rising tide of violators, on Thursday the Highway Patrol and the turnpike kicked off an enforcement and education campaign aimed at repeat offenders. Troopers and other law enforcement officers wrote 50 citations and issued 88 warnings at high violation toll plazas like Bird Road in Miami-Dade, Cypress Creek Road in Broward and Lantana in Palm Beach.

Some Floridians have resorted to incredibly extreme -- and in some cases, unsafe -- measures to obscure their license plates from toll plaza surveillance cameras, said FHP Chief Jim Lee, commander of the 460-mile turnpike system.

Motorists have wedged everything from envelopes to compact discs inside the license plate protective guards to partially block their plate numbers. Others have duct-taped paper directly over the plate.

''I think the worst one that I've personally seen was a commercial [truck] driver who put mortar mix and troweled it right across part of the plate,'' Lee said. ``There was no way that this was a little bit of concrete that just dripped and fell off.''

FHP and the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority recently nailed a nimble motorcyclist who routinely skipped tolls on both systems, said MDX deputy director Steve Andriuk.

Cameras repeatedly showed the man leaning forward on his high-speed ''crotch rocket,'' wrapping his legs, Yoga-style, around the back of the bike and covering the plate with his tennis shoes. He was eventually caught because of distinctive markings on his helmet, Andriuk said.

Another surveillance photo widely circulated among toll road operators and consultants shows a motorcyclist steering his bike through a toll plaza with his right hand, while leaning back and using his left to cover the plate, then deploying the universal single-digit salute of defiance as a finishing touch.

Sometimes people will go to unsafe extremes to beat a $1 toll, like the man who rode in the open trunk of his friends' moving car so he could lean out and cover the plate as they passed through the toll plaza.

And then there are the blatant violators like Josť who don't even try to cover their plates. But he is far from a one-man rolling crime wave.

Between January and June , the turnpike said, 1,153 people plowed through the SunPass lanes 25 to 45 times without paying; 236 did it between 50 and 74 times; and 84 between 75 and 99 times.

Ely and Lee said the Turnpike and police need help from the Legislature to bring toll-dodging abuses under control.

Part of the problem, they admit, is that most of the violations are civil infractions that don't carry substantial monetary penalties. In most communities, penalties generally start at $25.

The turnpike and FHP want to ban products, such as invisible spray ''films,'' sold over the Internet, that are designed to obscure license plates, especially at night.

They are also going to ask for the power to suspend for 60 days the driver's license of anyone with 10 violations in a three-year period.

''It's really a fairness issue,'' Ely said. ``We have millions of customers who pay their fair share every day, and a small but growing number of people who don't. It's just not right to those honest people who pay every day.''

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