Florida Keys

Should Florida Keys highway get a toll? County agrees to study it

Heavy traffic on U.S. 1 in the Upper Keys comes to a halt in August 2016. Local officials are studying whether a toll on the Keys’ main artery is legally possible.
Heavy traffic on U.S. 1 in the Upper Keys comes to a halt in August 2016. Local officials are studying whether a toll on the Keys’ main artery is legally possible. Keynoter

When it comes to whether a toll on U.S. 1 into the Florida Keys might be feasible, it doesn’t hurt to ask, Monroe County commissioners agree.

“Some statutes have changed, tolling mechanisms have changed, a lot of things have changed,” said Commissioner Heather Carruthers, who introduced a resolution supporting exploration into the logistical and legal aspects of a toll at the board’s Key Largo meeting.

The Islamorada Village Council revived interest in a possible toll in April and petitioned the County Commission and other Keys municipalities for support of a feasibility study.

“We’re not saying it’s going to happen,” Village Councilman Mike Forster told county commissioners Wednesday, “but why not try?”

“It’s something we need to at least explore and find out if we can more forward with it,’ Village Councilwoman Deb Gillis said. “It’s a very general discussion and we do need support from everybody.”

“This subject has been coming up for 30 years,” said County Commissioner Sylvia Murphy doubtfully.

Commissioners endorsed the resolution last week on a voice vote. Islamorada will take the lead on crafting the study.

“We have a lot of big-ticket items out there,” Carruthers said, pointing to water quality and adapting the low-lying Keys to sea level rise. Carruthers worked on a similar toll study 2010.

Forster acknowledged opposition from residents and businesses who fear a toll could put a dent in the tourism economy. But a potential toll could ease traffic problems and pay for “things that would really benefit us.”

“Our nearshore waters people are using and denigrating, but we don’t have enough funding to make it right,” he said. “The money that would be collected would have to stay in Monroe County and not go elsewhere.”

“We need a mechanism to help support the financial burden on these communities,” Gillis said.

Last Stand Vice President Deb Curlee said the Lower Keys conservation group supports “exploration of a toll for non-residents” as long as any revenues would help safeguard the Keys environment.

“The concern is that we do all this work and get the toll and the money doesn’t come where we want it,” Curlee said.

Roget Bryan, Islamorada’s village attorney, said preliminary work is “peeling the onion of what regulatory hurdles may exist.”

“If the idea were viable, how does it need to be done?” Bryan said. “We’re trying to identify a clear road map to that.”

The County Commission’s resolution concludes:

“The board supports the exploration of a feasibility study for establishing toll lanes on U.S. 1 coming into the Florida Keys for non-residents to offset tourist impacts, for the protection and improvement of water quality, to support infrastructure as mitigation against global climate change and sea level rise, and for other pressing needs within the Florida Keys.”

The Florida Keys has one of the last manned toll booths in the state. The toll collectors describe the work of greeting vacationers and the "old Florida" spirit of a slower life, where you simply enjoy the water. Video by Charlie Trainor Jr. / M

Kevin Wadlow: 305-440-3206

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