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Sunpass comes to Miami-Dade causeways

Toll plaza on the Rickenbacker Causeway.
Toll plaza on the Rickenbacker Causeway.
© 2014 George Leposky

Miami-Dade County will introduce the Sunpass transponder system of electronic toll collections on the Rickenbacker Causeway from Miami to Virginia Key and Key Biscayne, and the Venetian Causeway connecting Miami and Miami Beach.

Beginning on Tuesday evening, September 23, 2014, all tolls on these causeways will be collected electronically through a prepaid Sunpass account. The prepaid C-Pass transponders that the county now uses will be retired, and so will the human collectors who accept cash at the toll plazas.

This will be a major improvement for south Florida residents and visitors alike who now struggle with a causeway toll system that isn’t compatible with the Sunpass they use on Florida’s Turnpike and Miami-Dade expressways – the Airport Expressway (State Road 112), the Dolphin Expressway (SR 836), the Don Shula Expressway (SR 874), the Snapper Creek Expressway (SR 878), and the Gratigny Parkway (SR 924) – and for parking at Miami International Airport and Ft. Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport..

Sunpass users will continue to pay the current $1.75 toll going south through the Rickenbacker Causeway plaza. Without Sunpass, the southbound toll will be $2.25 plus the $2.50 administrative fee. Northbound drivers coming off the Rickenbacker Causeway pay no toll.

On the Venetian Causeway, the current toll is $1.75 in each direction. Sunpass users will continue to pay that amount after the changeover. Without Sunpass, the toll will be $2.25 each way plus the $2.50 administrative fee.

Two Sunpass Alternatives

If you don’t already have a Sunpass and want to buy one, two types are available:

The SunPass Slim Portable Transponder can be moved from vehicle to vehicle. It carries a two-year warranty and costs $25. Unlike older models, it doesn’t light up or beep when a toll is paid, and it doesn’t need batteries.

SunPass Mini Sticker Transponder costs $4.99. It operates only when attached to a glass windshield. If you remove it, it stops working, so you have to buy a new one if you trade in your car. It’s not designed for use on motorcycles.

Both types require you to set up a prepaid account with at least a $10 balance. Most users link the account to a major credit card for automatic replenishment whenever the balance dips below a specified amount. With this arrangement, you don’t have to do anything except pay your credit-card bill. Otherwise, you can replenish in cash at numerous locations around the county, but you’ll pay a separate $1.50 convenience fee for each replenishment transaction.

If you don’t have a SunPass, cameras attached to the gantry will photograph your car’s license tag and send a bill to the car’s registered owner. In addition to the toll, the bill will include an administrative processing fee, currently $2.50 a month. To avoid the processing fee, you can set up a prepaid toll-by-plate account.

If you’re renting a car, ask the rental-car company in advance what arrangement (if any) it has with the state for turnpike tolls.

The Rickenbacker Causeway

The 5.4-mile-long Rickebacker Causeway, which opened in 1947, is named for Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker, a World War I flying ace who later founded and led Miami-based Eastern Airlines.

The causeway provides access to Miami Seaquarium, the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, Maritime and Science Technology Academy (a public magnet high school), Historic Virginia Key Beach Park, and Miami Marine Stadium on Virginia Key; and to Crandon Park (which includes a marina, tennis center, golf course, ocean beach, and nature center), the Village of Key Biscayne, and Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park on the island of Key Biscayne.

The causeway opened in 1947. The original drawbridge between Virginia Key and the mainland was replaced in 1985 by the William M. Powell Bridge, a new high-level span with a maximum clearance of 76 feet, 10 inches. The old drawbridge is gone but its approaches remain and are used as fishing piers.

Currently the Bear Cut Bridge at the south end of the causeway, between Virginia Key and Key Biscayne, is undergoing major repairs and reconstruction.

The Venetian Causeway

The Venetian Causeway crosses a series of residential neighborhoods on islands of fill dredged from Biscayne Bay. It opened in 1925, following the route of the 2.5-mile-long Collins Bridge. Opened in 1913, the Collins Bridge was the first road connection between Miami and the barrier island of Miami Beach.

The Venetian Causeway was extensively restored and reconstructed from 1996 through 1999. Now another restoration project is about to get underway. It will involve closing for several months the westernmost span of the bridge, which wasn’t involved in the earlier reconstruction.

Originally officials said the toll conversion would await completion of the planned repairs, but because that project has yet to begin, they decided to implement the changeover to Sunpass on both causeways simultaneously.

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