Would you pay a toll to get into the Florida Keys?

Lower Matecumbe toll booth on the Overseas Highway circa 1940. MONROE COUNTY PUBLIC LIBRARY SYSTEM/Contributed

The possibility of a toll on U.S. 1 to enter into the Florida Keys was a hot topic at the August BOCC meeting, where county commissioners requested staff to explore the feasibility of establishing such a fee. 

The toll lanes would be for nonresidents and help offset tourist impacts on the local environment and infrastructure. Funds raised could be used to improve water quality or support infrastructure investment against sea level rise, and for other pressing needs within the Florida Keys, like assisting law enforcement, alleviating traffic problems, and assisting with evacuation and reentry.

Mayor Heather Carruthers led discussions and reviewed the status of toll talks. The topic has been discussed and even implemented several times over the years. Tolls were collected on U.S. 1 in 1927 and 1938 and have been continually collected on Card Sound Road since 1926. In 2010, the BOCC researched the practicality and ability of establishing a toll on the Monroe County end of the 18-Mile Stretch to address infrastructure needs related to sea level rise. As recently as 2017, commissioners requested the Florida Department of Transportation to create a toll on U.S. 1. 

“They have, to my knowledge, never done anything about it,” said Carruthers. “I don’t know where they are with this. In my briefing with them, they said they didn’t know anything about this. I think a lot of things have happened since the last couple times we’ve talked to them about this.”

The BOCC is exploring the idea of toll booths on U.S. 1 leading into the Keys. AUSTIN ARONSSON/Keys Weekly

Now, in light of the latest climate data projections for the Keys, which include new sea level rise projections of 10-17 inches near Key West by 2040 and 21-40 inches by 2070, the question on everyone’s mind is how the county will pay for all these necessary adaptations, mitigations and infrastructure fixes. 

Carruthers said, “Any fees collected by toll could be used for transportation and transportation-related items on the highway it’s collected on.”

The Mayor also noted that funds are allowed to benefit areas a half-mile off the highway, and that given the “skinny nature of our island chain,” that leeway may prove very helpful. Other commissioners brought up the fact that dynamic tolling and electronic tolling with SunPass can be used to optimize tolls based on traffic levels, holidays and other considerations.

“We have significant challenges,” said Commissioner David Rice. “It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. We have different reasons this needs to be done today than we had in previous attempts.”

The commissioners requested staff to re-engage with the issue and especially address considerations including the legal foundations for a toll, potential financial earnings for the county from a toll, and false expectations on what toll money can be used for in the community. 

County Attorney Bob Shillinger cautioned, “The closer to roads and road improvements we can make our request, the less novel it will be to those who have approved tolls in the past. The more creative we get, the more challenging it will be (to get our toll approved).”

Callers from the public all voiced their support of the BOCC’s taking action and recommending a toll. 

Norman Whartman, familiar with transportation and tolling, said, “You’re right on the money on this. Basically, the first step is to see the legal foundation before we spend any significant money. We need to see where we stand and how we do this.”

Whartman offered up a solution that has been working in Connecticut for in-state versus out-of-state residents: an annual pass for residents, for which either the residents or the county could pay. This would work, he said, for people needing to supply the Keys like Publix trucks, as well as daily workers coming in from Miami-Dade. He was also in support of dynamic tolling based on times of week, time of day and holidays. 

“This could be a godsend if implemented directly,” he said.

The feasibility study will determine the state and federal laws and regulations for a toll to be established, and what the revenue can be used for outside of highway maintenance and reconstruction. Staff will report back to the BOCC at a future meeting.

Resident sticker when the Overseas Highway was a toll road. KEYS HISTORY AND DISCOVERY MUSEUM/Contributed