Miami-Dade County has finally hired a firm to handle the software conversion of the Venetian and Rickenbacker causeway toll systems to SunPass, but the change won’t be in place before fall 2014.
The change will convert the causeway to SunPass or toll-by-plate payment, residents were told in a Wednesday night gathering put together by the Venetian Way Alliance, the Venetian Island Homeowner Association and the Belle Isle Residents Association.
In other words: no cash, no toll takers, no toll arms that sometimes don’t go up, and no need for a special C-Pass lane for island residents.
It’s expected to reduce backups, but many island residents worried that greater efficiency will lure more traffic to a residential roadway.
Island property owners will still be able to pass through the causeway with a $24-a-year residents’ rate; their SunPass will have to be programmed for it.
The fall 2014 target is another delay in the conversion, which at one point had been planned for Fall 2012. But no one at Wednesday’s meeting bemoaned the delay. Most residents expressed concern that while the switch will make the toll booth easier to pass through, it will lure more traffic.
The Miami-Dade County representatives — Mike Bauman, the chief of the causeway division at Public Works; Tony Cotarela, the interim county engineer, and Chris Rose, deputy director of administration for Miami-Dade County — repeatedly heard from residents worried about traffic increases.
Bauman said that Miami-Dade has no choice but the make this change. The old system is failing from a technical standpoint, and state law requires that any new toll system be SunPass compatible.
“We contracted with a company that has done it in other places,” Bauman said.. “The contract is to install equipment…There will not longer be cash accepted in any way. It is our plan to remove toll gates and have free flowing traffic through the toll gates.”
The contractor is Transcore LP, a company headquartered in Pennsylvania, according to Public Works spokeswoman Gayle Love. The five-year contract cost is $4 million; if the county decides to renew the four five-year options, the total contract cost would be $12 million.
Rose said the county is considering a 25 cent increase in the $1.50 one-way causeway toll for the budget year that begns Oct. 1; residents asked for even greater toll increases to discourage additional traffic and create more revenue.
Ultimately, toll rates will be decided by the Miami-Dade Commission Rose said, not county staff or Mayor Carlos Gimenez.
Other nuggets that emerged during nearly 90 minutes of discussion:
— The county expects to need to spend an estimated $110 million in 10 years to rebuild the dozen bridges that make up the causeway. Much of the money will need to come from toll revenue. So higher tolls are likely, and increased traffic volume times higher tolls (and less expense with automatic toll collection) helps pay the bill.
— The county is opening to future toll increases, and even the notion of variable tolls, like on the Interstate 95 express lanes. With variable tolls, it would cost more to cross the causeway when traffic is greater. SunPass can do that, Bauman said, adding “we would consider congestion pricing.”
— The county is likely to make the far right lane in each direction (now the C-Pass lane) into permanent bike and pedestrian lanes. That would still leave two lanes each way for SunPass, with no toll gates.
— The county will install “speedback signs” at several points on the cause that flash when drivers exceed the speed limit. The engineers believe these signs combined with enforcement do decrease speeding.
— The county said there is no data that suggests the change to automatic tolls will inrease traffic. But Bauman and Rose said the county has not done any kind of study that predicts how the change to automatic tolls will impact traffic.
This was the most contentious subject at the meeting. Residents asked that the county study the impact, and rejected the notion that the change won’t draw more cars.