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Updated: 01/13/2013 08:00:16AM

‘It’s not our fault’ is not enough

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Even those who initially were skeptical, as was this newspaper, about the need for construction of the Polk Parkway toll road, are now impressed by the convenience it offers to motorists seeking to avoid traffic congestion, particularly around Lakeland.

The planned eastern extension will provided needed relief from truck congestion that is certain to be the result of the intermodal rail freight terminal between Bartow and Lake Wales.

Although the parkway speed limit is unrealistically low for much of its distance — working to the advantage of numerous speed traps posted along it — the road is a welcome relief from the bumper to bumper traffic that has become a part of our daily lives.

A quarter here, a buck and a quarter there, is money well spent when gasoline prices easily cost motorists 20 to 25 cents per mile.

But an absurd gaffe regarding a toll collection issue — endlessly reported by Tampa’s WFLA-TV — disclosed a major problem in governance of the parkway system.

As reported by Channel 8 and The Tampa Tribune, last April, Donna Mercurio got on the Suncoast Expressway in Brooksville, and mistakenly exited through a SunPass lane without having her transponder in the car. She returned to the toll booth to attempt to pay the 25-cent toll.

Finding it unmanned, she picked up an envelope provided for motorists without proper change, and mailed a check for 50 cents to the state, presumably 25 cents for the missed toll and another quarter for the return visit. The state cashed her check.

She and her 79-year-old husband, Tony, left a short time later for Michigan, thinking the matter resolved.

When the couple returned to Brooksville in November, they found bills in their mailbox from the state assessing fines totaling $268 and a notice of suspension of Tony Mercurio’s driver’s license.

To keep things in perspective, the fine was 1,072 times the amount of the toll that his wife missed, then sent to the state in recompense. That would be like a fine of $10,720 for taking a package of socks that cost $10.

And Tony Mercurio, who unwittingly had been driving with an expired license for several months, was not even the 25-cent violator. That is a major flaw with Florida laws that impose penalties against the owner — not the driver — of cars that run red lights or miss toll booths: Guilty until proven innocent, whether or not you are aware of the accusation.

When neither the Turnpike Authority nor the Hernando County court clerk’s office showed an interest in solving the Mercurios’ problem, the couple contacted the 8 On Your Side ombudsman at WFLA, and within two days, the bureaucratic egg was unscrambled.

It seems the SunPass people and the Turnpike Authority folks do not communicate with each other about such matters.

In the finest bureaucratic fashion, their position was, “Whatever went wrong, it’s not our fault.”

Even if two agencies involved in collecting tolls do not consider it important to communicate with each other before imposing fines that are 1,000 times the amount owed, other questions cry out for answers.

Chief among these: why does the state have the authority to suspend a driver’s license without so much as requiring a return receipt for the notice of suspension, which would show if the notice were ever delivered? Bureaucratic answer: “As long as it’s not our fault, who cares?” This fiasco occurred in Hernando County; it just as easily could have occurred in Polk.

The turnpike system is a boon to motorists in Polk County and throughout the state.

But it suffers from inadequate management of those occasions on which a confused motorist sends payment to the state to correct a simple toll booth oversight.

“It’s not our fault” is not a solution