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Sarasota Monday, Apr. 1, 2019 5 months ago

APRIL FOOLS: Siesta Key 'cover charge' planned

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APRIL FOOLS: Residents and county taxpayers will be exempt from new charges coming this summer.
by: Amelia Hanks Community Reporter

APRIL FOOLS -- With summer quickly approaching, county officials say they’re not about to squeeze off a potential revenue stream on Siesta Beach simply because such details as constitutionality or precedent haven’t been deeply investigated.

While government leaders and community stakeholders ponder the bigger questions of regional traffic congestion, supply and demand of parking and the possibility of paid parking, a pop-up idea floated at a recent transportation workshop has cut to the front of the line and is on pace to be implemented by June.

“They say the user fee is the fairest fee of all, because you only pay for what you use,’’ said Stan Bymee, an analyst consultant for the transportation consulting firm of Hurry, Upp and Waite. “Well, we’re going to be really fair on Siesta this summer.’’

In the simplest terms: by June 20, visitors to the island community will pay for the time they spend there, though residents of the island, employees on the island and county taxpayers will be exempt. Residents and employees initially will receive permits to pass without paying. County taxpayers will have to produce identification proving their residency.

Initially, time-stamped tickets will be issued to all cars of non-residents on their way across either of the two bridges from the mainland. On their way off the island, the ticket will be checked and visitors will pay a base rate of $5 an hour for the time spent on the island. The first 30 minutes are free, and a maximum fee of $50 has been established.

Additional premium upcharges of $2 an hour will be added from 7 p.m. to 4 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays and all day on such popular holidays as Easter, Memorial Day, Independence Day and Labor Day.

A license-plate reading system is being designed that would automate the process and systematically eliminate charges for anyone exempt from the fee. The $1.7 million system will be paid for by initial proceeds from the fee, officially referred to as the Siesta Beach Experience. Proceeds beyond those needed to purchase, install and operate the plate-reading system will be plowed back into such transportation needs as the Siesta Breeze trolley, parking enforcement and crosswalk maintenance.

“To put it another way, maybe one that would be more familiar to a lot of weekend warriors out there, Siesta Key has a cover charge now,” Bymee said. “If you live here, if you follow me, you’ll get a wristband.”

Pedestrians and cyclists will be charged $1 an hour. They will have to pay manually once the license reader is installed, possibly by August.

Stakeholders concede the idea hasn’t been thoroughly vetted, but “let’s not let perfect get in the way of ‘meh, what could possibly go wrong,’” Bymee said.

Resident Steven Cheap said he’s grateful.

“I can’t believe that they’re doing this, but if it means less traffic on Midnight Pass Road, that’s fine with me,” said Cheap. “Just as long as they don’t charge me, I guess I don’t care.”

Tourists, who make the great pilgrimage every year to flock to the beach for spring break, were more than a little surprised to hear that they would have to pay simply for breathing air on the other side of the bridge.

“Wait, what? It’s how much? I only brought money to buy drinks tonight,” said college student Jessica Black. “I am seriously never coming back here. Like, ever.”

Cheap, overhearing Black from nearby, simply smiled.

County officials have contracted with Hurry, Upp and Waite to run the operation. Bymee said he was overwhelmed by the number of men and women who have volunteered to time stamp tickets and collect payments during the manual segment of the plan. “We really should pay them, though, I suppose,” he said.

“I’m just gonna tell them: ‘What of it, I don’t make the rules,’” said Cassius Change, a would-be volunteer toll worker. “I’d sit there on the bridge for nothing, really. But if they pay me, even better.”

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