Millions of toll dollars may go uncollected by state; lawmakers want answers

"People are realizing there's no consequence to not paying tolls."

Hundreds of millions of tollway dollars may be going uncollected by the state, and lawmakers want more transparency from the Florida Department of Transportation on the reasons why.

Just some legislative efforts wither and die in the final few weeks of the Session, others are born — seemingly from nowhere — like a Wednesday amendment to a House transportation bill that would require FDOT and other tolling agencies to submit a report to state leaders documenting uncollected Toll-by-Plate bills.

The bill, HB 395, sponsored by State Rep. Alex Andrade, a Pensacola Republican, was approved at its third and final House committee, the State Affairs Committee, Thursday morning. The day before, Delray Beach Republican Rep. Mike Caruso filed the toll-related amendment.

It comes as a group of lawmakers grow increasingly concerned about state revenue lost — potentially worth hundreds of millions of dollars — through uncollected tolls.

“People are realizing there’s no consequence to not paying tolls,” Caruso said, referencing FDOT’s approach toward collecting overdue bills since the start of its SunPass system collapse in June 2018. “There are millions of small (toll bills) every month that are going uncollected.”

Caruso, a certified public accountant by trade, said he discovered the state’s tolling authorities having to essentially write-off over $100 million since the start of the SunPass Saga, and the pace of uncollected tolls grows each month. He wanted to require FDOT to provide the governor and legislature a full accounting because he believes the figure could hit $200 million this year.

“That’s enough money that we could build major new roadways — from scratch,” Caruso said.

FDOT declined to comment Thursday on the specific legislation, but agency spokesperson Beth Frady wrote in an email, “FDOT will adhere to any new legislation that is passed, or changes to existing state statutes, which might occur during this legislative session.”

As FDOT has expanded its expressway system in recent years, it has also gone completely cashless on many toll roads. That has eliminated the cost of staffing toll booths but has created other challenges when it comes to collecting tolls from drivers who don’t have a SunPass transponder.

After Florida Politics exposed the tens of millions of Toll-by-Plate transactions that were going uncollected in early 2019, the state said it would provide millions of dollars’ worth of free transponders to Florida drivers. But Caruso said he didn’t think many Floridians would open SunPass accounts because the state wasn’t enforcing penalties — like registration renewal holds — on people who didn’t pay.

“Half the drivers aren’t paying, leaving the other half (to pay more),” Caruso added. “I spoke to students who admit to running the (Toll-by-Plate) lanes because they know there’s no penalty.”

Noah Pransky

Noah Pransky is a multiple award-winning investigative reporter, most recently with the CBS affiliate in Tampa. He’s uncovered major stories such as uncovering backroom deals in the Tampa Bay Rays stadium and other political investigations. Pransky also ran a blog called Shadow of the Stadium, giving readers a deep dive into the details of potential financial deals and other happenings involving the Tampa Bay- area sports business.


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