Two weeks ago when the 67-year-old Rickenbacker Causeway, which runs from Miami to Key Biscayne, began employing Florida’s SunPass to collect tolls for the first time, island residents cheered.
No longer would they fume in often-backed-up traffic trying to approach cramped toll gates — this despite having paid a $24 annual fee for an electronic pass that allowed unlimited use of the causeway and the ability to pass through the gates without stopping.
While traffic is flowing more freely today, many residents who have paid for annual permits are now racking up surprising SunPass charges at a rate of $1.75 on every trip they make on their drive home. Rickenbacker officials say they are struggling with a number of wrinkles in the new system and are being swamped with calls from upset island residents.
Ideally, with a SunPass programmed to recognize their vehicles’ permit, residents and commuters, such as school teachers, expected to continue to enjoy the reduced cost of using Rickenbacker, at $24 and $60, respectively.
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But several reasons underlie the troubles. Causeway authorities cannot issue an annual resident permit if the vehicle’s owner does not have an activated SunPass. Because many homeowners on Key Biscayne are seasonal residents, they are unfamiliar with the SunPass and unaware they need to register the pass with the state of Florida.
Other problems: Officials say some drivers have registered their new SunPass sticker or transponder on the wrong vehicle. And residents and causeway staffers who issue the $24 permits have grappled with accuracy in entering the 12-digit SunPass numbers into the state computer system.
But perhaps the larger issue, Rickenbacker officials warn, is that drivers need to maintain a balance on their SunPass account, otherwise the Key Biscayne toll gate will start automatically charging for trips despite the vehicle having a resident permit.
"The traffic flow has been great, but this is a transitional period," Mike Bauman, chief of Miami-Dade County’s Causeway Division, said. "Most of the problems we face involve wrong SunPass or credit card numbers and drivers who haven't activated their SunPass."
The problems, he said, are being corrected as drivers call in. "For many years, customers have been used to the C-Pass so it takes time to adjust to the new system," he said. Operated with a special transponder, the C-Pass was the $24 special permit only for residents.
Bauman could not say how many Key Biscayne residents are affected by the difficulties. He said a similar shift to SunPass use on the Venetian Causeway was also proving troublesome for Venetian Isle residents but in fewer numbers.
Bernard Eismann, who retired to Key Biscayne 15 years ago, said the new system “is driving me crazy.” With two cars and two SunPasses, Eismann, 81, said he has struggled with the SunPass website set up to help residents. “Total confusion,” he said. Frustrated, he has tried calling the Rickenbacker toll office but finds the lines are always busy. “I’ll have to go over and talk to someone, but the office is jammed.”
The causeway authorities say they issue about 10,000 annual passes to residents and another 4,000 to commuters. Tolls collected in error will be refunded, they said, but drivers need to alert the office if they notice unwarranted charges.
September and October is the period for the annual renewal of resident permits, which is adding to the burden. Causeway administrators say many people who live on the island only in winter have begun to arrive and are just learning they need to switch to the SunPass.
County transportation officials say they made strenuous effort to reach out to Key Biscayne residents before the change. Besides meetings at the island Community Center and several articles in the local newspaper the Islander, 20,000 informational flyers were passed out at the toll gate explaining the new system.
Charles Press, Key Biscayne's chief of police, said "the county did a tremendous job of reaching out, but technology is technology and you are going to have glitches."
Eventually, Press said, the new system will ease the pain of reaching the island, especially on crowded weekends.
Still, in the meantime, one Rickenbacker supervisor said his office has been flooded with calls from residents who are finding charges on their SunPass accounts. “We’re learning as we go along,” another staffer acknowledged.