The tolls stayed until the 1980s. They were added to virtually every other bridge on major roadways in Jacksonville except the Buckman, Main Street and Acosta which jokingly was referred to as “The No-Costa Bridge.” Tolls were on the Fuller Warren, Hart, Trout River, Dames Point and Sollee Bridge on J. Turner Butler Boulevard. Toll revenues from the bridges and J. Turner Butler Boulevard financed the Arlington Expressway, Mayport Road, Southside Boulevard, Haines Street (later renamed after Martin Luther King, Jr.) and Roosevelt Boulevard.
Tommy Hazouri led efforts to remove tolls after he became mayor in 1987. The idling of engines waiting in line to pay tolls to booth attendants or throw coins in collection baskets contributed to air pollution problems. The waits created congestion on an increasingly crowded roadway system. And they were a nuisance, supporters of toll removals said. In March 1989, voters approved by a vote of just 50.8 percent a Hazouri-led referendum to remove the tolls and replace them with a half-cent sales tax. On August 11, 1989, the toll era temporarily ended when a wrecking ball toppled the first toll booth ever opened in Jacksonville, one on the Mathews Bridge.
“The bridge wasn’t very far from where we lived,” said Hazouri, who resided above his family’s grocery store at Liberty and Ashley streets, now the site of Duval fire station number one. “My brother, Richard and I used to ride our bicycles up the bridge when I was eight and Richard was eleven-years-old. Little did I know them that I would be the Mayor who helped bring the onerous tolls down 39 years later from those bike rides.”
But that wasn’t the end of tolls in Jacksonville. They have been common and grudgingly accepted for years in other sections of Florida and nationwide. The Florida Department of Transportation used trust fund revenues backed by the state’s gasoline tax to finance road projects. The highway trust funds originally were intended for road projects. Under Gov. Jeb Bush’s administration in the early 200s, legislators facing tight budgets used those revenues for non transportation purposes. Gasoline tax revenues weren’t sufficient to fully fund growth and maintenance needs on state road systems. Fuel efficient vehicles needing less gasoline impacted the gasoline tax, determined on a fixed charge per gallon. The formula simply means the more money spent on gasoline, the more the fund generates for highway construction.
The Florida Legislature allowed the FDOT to finance new or expanded transportation projects in Jacksonville with toll revenues, again igniting controversy from Hazouri and others. The first tolls were enacted earlier this year with the completion of the widening of I-295 in Mandarin. This time the toll collections are electronic without toll takers. The system is similar to those in other parts of the state where drivers have the choice of using free lanes or faster express lanes requiring pre-paid electronic toll cards. Tolls will be added to other parts of I-295 and I-95 in the next few years.
The new toll system and road openings won’t generate the excitement the first tolls did in 1953. Cars lined up for three or four hours to be the first riders on the Mathews. The initial traffic crept slowly, partially to enjoy the view. The dimensions of the Mathews, 150 feet high at the top and 7,375 feet long, were much greater than those of the Acosta and Main Street. Tourists came for the view.
Regency Square Mall during the 1960s (State Archives of Florida)
The opening of the Mathews was a grand community event. The first 3,000 people attending a celebration on the weekend after the opening of the bridge received a free barbeque lunch. Downtown stores promoted the bridge opening with “million dollar days” sales promotion to bring people downtown. Few if any merchants predicted the Mathews would contribute to the decline of downtown retailing by stimulating the creation of suburban malls such as Regency Square which opened in 1967. The suburban malls offered the same stores, easier access and no charges for parking. The bridge opened up Arlington and the Jacksonville Beaches to suburban migration and stimulated the construction of offices, strip malls and residential areas.
The new bridge achieved its goal of easing traffic congestion.
“Patrolmen were hurting for traffic to run across the Main Street Bridge,” Lt. E.E. Allen, a police traffic officer told the Florida Times-Union the day after the bridge opened.
Driver also adjusted to the tolls.
“Be patient while waiting to pay your toll and try to have the correct change to hand to the toll taker,” Leon Paine, assistant director for revenue projects for the state road department, advised Times-Union readers. “And drive carefully. If everyone cooperates confusion will be kept to a minimum.”
An aerial shot viewing the Arlington Plaza shopping center at the intersection of Arlington Road and Arlington Expressway in 1957. (State Archives of Florida)