Come February 1, traffic should start moving a bit more quickly through one of Pensacola Beach’s two bottlenecks — the Bob Sikes Bridge Toll Plaza.
Increasing traffic congestion in recent years has focused attention on the toll plaza as well as the signalized intersection where Pensacola Beach Boulevard meets Via de Luna and Fort Pickens Road. Escambia County officials have recently discussed converting the intersection into a roundabout, and on Thursday, county commissioners voted unanimously to move Pensacola Beach tolls to an all-electronic system by February.
That means cars will be able to drive right through toll gates without stopping to pay tolls with cash. Drivers who enroll in Florida’s Sunpass system will continue to pay just the $1 toll, while drivers without a Sunpass will be identified by license plate and sent a monthly bill which includes a $2.50 base fee plus $1 for each trip through the toll gate.
Widely used in central and south Florida, the Sunpass system requires users to pay a one-time $5 fee for a transponder sticker, then link their Sunpass account with a credit or debit card. County officials converted one of the toll plaza’s four lanes into a Sunpass lane earlier this year, and around 660,000 vehicles have since been electronically tolled using that lane.
After hearing the news, many area residents took to social media to note that tolls have long since covered the original cost of the bridge — which was built in 1974 — and should just be eliminated. The toll revenue is currently used to pay for bridge maintenance, to pay down bond debt related to the four-laning of Via de Luna in 2002, and to fund the operations of the toll plaza itself. Others argued that the move to all electronic tolling will disproportionately affect low-income residents who may not have bank accounts or prefer to use cash.
The county will spend around $50,000 to restripe toll lanes, change signage, and undertake a public information campaign about the change to electronic tolling. However, county officials expect to save an estimated $250,000 in labor costs each year as a result of the change.