JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Drivers who travel from the Westside to Orange Park should be prepared to purchase a SunPass by the start of 2018.
News4Jax has been following the progress of the First Coast Expressway for months now.
When the project is complete, there will be tolls along State Road 23 from New World Avenue in Duval County to Blanding Boulevard in Clay County.
Florida Department of Transportation officials met with Clay County officials and SunPass representatives in June to talk about the progress of the expressway.
The first phase of State Road 23, connecting I-10 in Baldwin to Blanding Boulevard in Middleburg, is expected to be completed by the end of the year. That means drivers could be charged as soon as the beginning of 2018 to take what many consider to be a shortcut.
There will be five tolls along the route, starting at 20 cents. The tolls could cost as much as $2.55, depending on the vehicle.
The trip from I-10 to New World Avenue will not be tolled, to give people access to Cecil Commerce Center, and the route between Old Jennings Road and Oakleaf Plantation Parkway will be toll-free to maintain local access.
Leading up to the addition of the tolls, the Department of Transportation has been trying to educate people about the SunPass program and what it entails.
The toll roads will include express lanes along Interstate 295 from Buckman Bridge to John Turner Butler Boulevard, but drivers aren’t required to travel in them. The Outer Bridge Project will have tolls as well, when the project is complete, north of Argyle Forest Boulevard.
SunPass shouldn’t come as a surprise to any drivers by the time it arrives. Just this week, at the Moosehaven fireworks show in Orange Park, SunPass representatives set up a tent and spoke with people in the crowd. They’re planning on massive promotions at this year’s Jacksonville Jaguars games, as well.
Still, not everyone seems to realize that the recent roadway construction will mean tolls in the future.
One woman, Colleen Petlick, already had a SunPass sticker in her windshield when she spoke with News4Jax. Drivers can purchase one, or a transponder, either online or at stores such as Publix, Walgreens and CVS.
Two primary roads will get tolls. First, there’s the Outer Beltway, which is being built right now. North of Argyle Forest Boulevard, the area will be toll-only. On I-295 through Mandarin, the construction on the express lanes will wrap up this year and tolls will go into effect early next year.
Half the people who Mary Justino speaks with are not familiar with the SunPass program. She’s been working hard to get the word out.
“I’ve been out talking to groups everywhere. You name it: rotary clubs (and) school staff meetings,” said Justino, of the Department of Transportation. “Anybody who will have us come out that’s interested in getting educated about SunPass, we’ve been talking to them. And what I find in any given audience (is that) I always ask, ‘Who here already has a SunPass?’ And I am actually surprised at the number of hands that go up.”
Right now, the initial 18 miles of the Outer Beltway will have tolls. But when the project is done, everything on the new expressway from I-10 on the Westside to I-95 in St. Johns County will be tolled for 46 miles. There are also voluntary express lanes eventually going in on JTB that will have tolls, as well.
Clay County residents, such as Joshua Thompson, are concerned for those who use the route to get to work every day.
"Another bill added on to your other bills. That's how I see it,” Thompson said. "If they go around the toll (routes), it's going to cause heavier traffic in areas where there may already be heavier traffic."
The new toll lanes won't have traditional collection booths where drivers stop and hand cash or change to an attendant. That means drivers will need to have a SunPass on their dash.
Drivers who use the First Coast Expressway without a SunPass will have their license plate scanned and will be sent a bill in the mail every month. But those drivers will be paying 25 percent more for each toll, along with an additional $2.50 for administration fees.
“I usually take that road because it's shorter and gets me out of traffic,” Yulee resident Jimmy Larsen said. “If they install the toll on it, I probably wouldn't take it as much.”
Officials with the Florida Department of Transportation said the money from the tolls will be used to repay Florida Turnpike Enterprise -- what was borrowed to build the expressway and to maintain the roadway.