Would you pay a toll to enter the Keys? Money needed to fight sea level rise, leaders say
It’s one of the most spectacular scenic drives in the nation: the Overseas Highway that leads down the Florida Keys to mile marker zero on U.S. 1.
Under blue skies, you can drift down the highway, along a collection of bridges, with the ocean on one side and the Gulf of Mexico on the other.
So should it be a free ride?
No, Monroe County Commissioners said on Wednesday. Once again, they are considering a toll for visitors — not residents. Those who work in the Keys but live on the mainland are also not targeted, County Administrator Roman Gastesi said.
But don’t load up your SunPass account just yet.
Commissioners only told staff to explore ordering a feasibility study on installing a toll at the Monroe County end of the 18-mile stretch of U.S. 1 that connects the mainland to the Keys.
First, commissioners have to determine the state and federal laws and regulations they need to deal with to create a toll.
U.S. 1, which starts at mile marker 0 in Key West and runs to Maine, is part of a federal network of state-owned highways. It is a “federal-aid” highway, which could place it under U.S. rules requiring that any tolls collected be spent on new road construction or needed maintenance.
Commissioners also need to find out exactly what they can spend the toll revenue on, outside of highway maintenance and reconstruction.
One idea they have: using the money to battle the impacts of sea level rise in the Keys.
“The worst-case scenario is that any fees collected by a toll could be used by transportation and on transportation-related items,” said Monroe Mayor Heather Carruthers, of Key West.
Tolls were collected on U.S. 1 in 1927 and 1938 and have been collected on Card Sound Road since 1926.
Also on Wednesday, the commission voted to raise the toll at Card Sound Road by one penny. The toll on a two-axle vehicle will be 78 cents. Three or more axles will go up to $1.03.
Keys leaders for years have been talking about making U.S. 1 a toll road.
The Florida Department of Transportation strongly opposed efforts in 2010 to 2012 to consider a Florida Keys toll.
“Our usual response from our partners when we request this is deafening silence for extended periods of time,” said Commissioner David Rice. “I would support giving it another try and hope we can at least get a respectful response.”
On July 21, 2010, the commission unanimously directed staff to investigate and research installing a toll on the stretch to fund a wastewater mandate and address infrastructure needs related to sea level rise.
In 2017, the commission researched how to make it happen and unanimously approved a resolution to support the exploration of a toll into the Keys for nonresidents.
“What are you going to do about the fact we’ll probably be the only county in the United States you can only get to by toll,” said Commissioner Sylvia Murphy of Key Largo. “That question is going to come up. You need to be ready with an answer.”
County Attorney Bob Shillinger said in response that it’s hard to get to Hawaii without “paying something” to get there.
In the past, the toll idea was opposed by former U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, Shillinger said.
“He’s no longer there so that obstacle is gone,” Shillinger said.