Opinion: Is an arm and a leg worth a shorter commute?

By Allison Bew
Staff Writer

I am one of the 11,000 commuters who attend UWF, and I come from the Gulf Breeze/Navarre area. This means I have to either brave the traffic, causing my commute to be roughly 45 minutes to an hour one way, or pay the steep price of a $7.50 round-trip toll to get to school.

While $7.50 might not sound too expensive, it quickly adds up when you have class three days a week. This means I would spend an extra $337.50 a semester just to get to class.

A 2001 article in Forbes magazine discussed the bridge and the incarceration of former Florida House Speaker Bolley “Bo” Johnson, the largest backer of Garcon Point Bridge. He was fined $4 million for violating federal environmental laws in order to construct the bridge quickly, as well as sentenced to two years in prison for tax evasion.

The owner of the bridge, the Santa Rosa Bay Bridge Authority, still owes its bondholders and the FDOT million of dollars.

The toll price was originally $2 when the bridge opened in May 1999 but has increased several times over the past 18 years to its current rate of $3.75. In 2015, the bank that serves as the trustee for the bondholders requested the Florida Department of Transportation raise the toll to $5 each way, but FDOT never responded to that request.

I am not alone in this predicament as UWF is made up predominantly of commuter students (82 percent of students live off campus, according to U.S. News & World Report). Many are faced with the same decision as I am: To pay or not to pay?

Garcon Point Bridge connects Highway 98 to I-10, reducing travel time for students commuting from the Navarre, Gulf Breeze and Pensacola Beach areas, as long as you’re willing to pay the price. Photo from www.figgbridge.com.

Savannah Richardson, a senior at UWF, resident of Gulf Breeze and mother, is constantly deciding whether to spend the extra cash for a quicker commute.

“I commute to school twice a week, and I take Garcon about half the time,” Richardson said. She said $3.75 is expensive: “You’re paying almost $8 a day; that is around $100 a month in toll fees for me. Essentially, I am paying for my time because I gain an extra 35 minutes on my commute.”

Personally, I have only taken Garcon Point Bridge once and it was because of terrible terrific on Highway 98, and I had a really important exam to take. My pride outweighs my need for convenience, and I am not the only one.

Patrick Keele, UWF student and Navarre resident, says his commute takes roughly an hour one way.

“I only travel to class three times a week, but I would be willing to take Garcon Point Bridge if the toll was $2 instead of nearly $4,” Keele said. “I only take Garcon if there is a serious accident somewhere along my route and I can’t be late. I only use the toll bridge if I absolutely have to.”

Fortunately for Navarre citizens, they have the option of taking Highway 87 north to I-10 if there is a backup along Highway 98. Both Keele and Tabitha Yamaguchi, UWF student and Navarre resident, say they are thankful to have a low-traffic route with no toll.

“Sometimes I will go over the three-mile bridge,” Yamaguchi said, “but I have never actually used Garcon Point Bridge because it is tolled. The price is really high.”

One simple solution would be to offer a student discount with proof of a valid student ID (good for UWF or Pensacola State College students). This practice is common in other countries. For example, Dutch students are allowed free transportation during the week with proof of a valid student ID.

“If there was a discount for students that is better than what they offer now, even if it was just a dollar off, I would definitely use it more,” Richardson said.

The Santa Rosa Bay Bridge Authority does offer a 50 percent “frequent user” discount if the driver makes 30 trips over the bridge in a month using a SunPass (costing a minimum of $14.99), but most students, like Richardson and Keele, only have class two or three times a week and would not use the bridge enough times in a month to qualify for the discounted rate.

Commuter students like me already put so much money toward school that a $7.50 round-trip toll is out of the question. In effect, it prevents a lot of potential traffic that would help pay off the bridge’s outstanding debt.