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SunPass finally easing traffic flow at Florida toll plazas

Sun-Sentinel - 3/6/2008 12:00:00 AM
by Michael Turnbell

Although it has taken nine years, SunPass is finally living up to its billing as an antidote to toll plaza gridlock.

The traffic-choking gates and toll booths for drivers who pay tolls electronically are coming down at most toll plazas.

Over the past four months, three toll plazas on Florida's Turnpike have been converted to so-called "open road tolling," meaning SunPass drivers can whiz by at 55 mph while their tolls are deducted from overhead scanners. A fourth plaza will be finished in May.

The Sawgrass Expressway also is speeding toward plazas without gates and barriers for SunPass users, with the southbound side of the new Sunrise plaza to open later this month.

"It is much better going through the toll at 55. It's a lot better than having to slow down and slowly pass through the individual lanes," said Mike Fender of Wellington, a SunPass user who commutes via the turnpike three times a week to Fort Lauderdale and Miami.

"I just wish they would get this done more quickly at the other plazas."

The changes will have a huge impact on how many SunPass users can pass through the plazas.

Each new SunPass express lane can accommodate 800 more vehicles an hour than a regular SunPass lane with gates and barriers or more than five times as many vehicles as a toll booth with an attendant.

The improvements put turnpike officials within reach of meeting their goal of having 75 percent of all tolls paid with SunPass by the end of the year. Currently, about 67 percent are paid electronically, with 45,000 SunPass transponders sold every month. About 3.4 million transponders have been purchased since SunPass was introduced in 1999.

Toll agencies across the country began turning to electronic toll collection without toll booths in the '90s to reduce chronic backups at toll plazas.

New toll roads, like Houston's West Park Tollway and the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority's Dolphin Expressway extension rely entirely on electronic tolls and accept no cash.

Older toll roads are retrofitting plazas with a mix of electronic tolls and cash lanes or building new high-tech plazas with fancy overhead steel trusses and separate areas at the side of the road for the dwindling number of drivers who pay cash. Florida's Turnpike Enterprise is doing both.

"Unlike in the 1950s, when technology limited toll collection to expensive, unsightly and inconvenient toll booths, we never need to build a new toll plaza again," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters, speaking at a contractors reception in Phoenix last month. "Instead, we can quickly and easily install high-speed open road tolling equipment that will never require a single driver to slow down."

Turnpike officials fast-tracked construction at the four plazas by retrofitting the existing structures. The work cost $18.1 million and took only a few months to complete.

"We wanted to accelerate these projects to give drivers the benefits as quickly as possible," said turnpike spokeswoman Laila Haddad.

The Cypress Creek plaza in Broward County was converted in early February. The Bird Road and Homestead plazas in Miami-Dade County made the switch to open road tolling late last year.

The Lantana plaza in Palm Beach County is the last of the four to be converted.

The turnpike will be closed overnight tonight in both directions between the Boynton Beach Boulevard and Lake Worth exits so crews can install new signs over the road approaching the plaza. The closure could be repeated overnight Monday if workers don't finish tonight or if it rains.

To retrofit the four plazas, SunPass toll booths, gates and barriers between lanes have been demolished to create a wide open area for the new SunPass express lanes.

At the turnpike's Okeechobee plaza in Miami-Dade and the Sawgrass' Sunrise plaza in Broward, crews are building new plazas that require cash-paying drivers to pull off to the side of the road, then merge back in traffic while SunPass users will be able to drive at full highway speed down the middle of the highway.

The speed limit in the SunPass lanes in the retrofitted toll plazas will be 55 mph compared with 25 mph in the old SunPass lanes. Turnpike officials say the 55-mph speed limit is less than the full highway speed limit of 65 mph for safety reasons.

"The walls have come down, but the area is still somewhat constrained," Haddad said.