Pensacola Beach tolls won’t be going cashless after all, as Escambia County commissioners voted Thursday to reverse their decision earlier this month to move the Bob Sikes Bridge Toll Plaza to the all-electronic SunPass system.
Commissioners had voted on Nov. 3 to stop cash collection by February, allowing drivers to go through the toll plaza without stopping. Those who purchased a $5 SunPass transponder would have continued to pay the $1 toll on each crossing, while those without a transponder would have been sent a monthly bill by a toll-by-plate system. The toll-by-plate bills would have included a $2.50 processing fee, something to which many residents objected. Others were open to the change but objected to the short timeline and lack of public input before the decision was made.
The move would have saved the county a quarter of a million dollars annually, officials said earlier this month.
Many residents suggested getting rid of the toll altogether, noting that the Bob Sikes Bridge has long since been paid for, but county officials say the toll revenue currently pays for bridge maintenance and to pay down bond debt related to the four-laning of Via de Luna in 2002.
The decision earlier this month was spearheaded by Commissioner Grover Robinson, in whose district the beach is located and who argued the move would help improve traffic flow to the beach.
“I know everybody [on the Commission] has gotten a lot of emails,” said Robinson on Thursday. “But again I say, when the bridge is backing up, y’all don’t get the emails. I get a slew of emails asking ‘What are you doing, why can’t you get this fixed, what’s going on?'”
Several commissioners felt that, in light of the opposition, the change warranted further discussion.
“It’s a big conversation,” said Commissioner Doug Underhill. “This issue is the tip of the iceberg for a much larger conversation that I think really does belong in a public forum. Because quite frankly, I don’t think all the best answers in the county reside among the five people that sit on this board.”
In the end, Commissioner Steven Barry moved to rescind the commission’s previous decision, and that motion eventually passed on a unanimous 5-0 vote.
“I’m satisfied with tonight’s vote and the willingness of the County Commissioners to work with the people on this issue,” said Brandon Foster, who had organized an online petition against the cashless tolling proposal. Some 1,900 people had signed that petition by Thursday.
“Everyone won tonight as reason prevailed,” said Claude Gillette, another Escambia resident who helped organize opposition to the change.
Thursday’s reversal means the issue is likely tabled for the next year, as commissioners would be unlikely to pursue such a change during the coming year’s tourism season.