US 1 toll back on agenda
Commissioner seeks source for sewer funding
BY TIMOTHY O'HARA
Key West Citizen Staff
To toll or not to toll, that is the question.
So far, the answer has been no, but the question of charging a toll on vehicles entering the Florida Keys will come back before the Monroe County Commission when it meets Wednesday in Key West.
The county now charges a $1 toll on Card Sound Road, but U.S. 1, the primary artery connecting the Keys to the mainland, is a free ride.
County Commissioner Heather Carruthers, who has been unsuccessful in lobbying her fellow commissioners on the toll idea, is concerned the Keys will not be able to raise enough money to pay for state-mandated sewer projects through property taxes alone.
She also said it is not fair to have residents pick up the full tab for wastewater systems, as millions of tourists use those services too. Carruthers has called for a discussion about placing a tollgate on U.S. 1 at the entrance to Monroe County, and to give county staff direction to further research the proposal.
The state Legislature has given the Keys until December 2015 to upgrade wastewater treatment throughout the county. The Legislature this year reauthorized a bond that could bring $200 million to the Keys for wastewater projects, but the money has yet to be allocated. With the state struggling to balance its own budget, there is concern that it could be years before that money reaches the Keys.
Legislators recently balked at a plan to allow the county to add an additional cent to its sales tax for wastewater projects. Without state support, additional sales tax or toll revenue, some Keys homeowners face as much as $20,000 in sewer connection fees.
"We can't rely on just ad valorem taxes," Carruthers said Monday. "The state won't consider a one-cent sales tax, and we have to pursue other options."
The Key Largo Chamber of Commerce has opposed a toll on U.S. 1, fearing it would reduce the number of visitors to the Upper Keys and would be unfair to commuters who live in Florida City and Homestead.
Earlier this year, the chamber posted a poll on its website asking people whether they supported a toll. Of the 209 people who responded, 70 percent opposed the idea, according to the chamber.
"The chamber appreciates Commissioner Carruthers' willingness to explore all possible revenue options in these days of decreasing property taxes," said chamber President Jackie Harder. "We still have questions that would have to be resolved before we could support it -- particularly on how such a toll would impact local businesses and their employees, many of whom commute daily from the mainland."
Carruthers said SunPass and other technology has made paying tolls more convenient, and keeps people from having to stop.
Tollbooths were placed on Big Pine and Lower Matecumbe keys in 1938 to pay for road and bridge work after the 1935 Labor Day hurricane. They were removed in the 1950s once the bond was repaid, according to Keys historian Tom Hambright.
Reprinted with written permission of the author, Timothy O'Hara, Key West Citizen Staff
To learn more about the history of The Overseas Highway, visit http://www.keyshistory.org/osh.html