In the spirit of giving equal time and an equal voice to all parties in the debate and discussion, we share Ms. Deason’s concerns with our readers:
I saw your online article and wanted to respond.
There are actually three separate issues going on here as a result of a partial, inaccurately reported story on Sunday night. One issue is about employee personal expression of their holidays at the Turnpike, one is about decorating toll booths and one is about roadside displays of decorations. It has all gotten jumbled up and mixed up, and in people’s minds, it is all the same issue, so I’d like to clear this up for you.
The original story about Turnpike decorations that aired on Channel 6 in Orlando and picked up by Channel 10 in Tampa was supposed to be about a Christmas tree that was supposedly put up in the Leesburg tolls administration building on Thursday and taken down on Friday—not a toll booth. But the tree wasn’t taken down, it is in the same location–the break room–where it has been for more than a week. The reporter called at 8 p.m. on Sunday for an 11 p.m. story and I could not verify information until Monday, but he ran the story anyway.
Unfortunately, this story has been picked up by several news outlets, and no one called me to independently check the facts. We aren’t sure what the point the collector, a contracted employee of Faneuil, was hoping to make—perhaps she just got nervous and confused when the reporter stuck a microphone in front of her.
Florida’s Turnpike Enterprise has not allowed holiday decorations or any personal items in the toll booths for approximately 20 years. This directive is in place for several reasons, but is primarily about security. Toll workers are not allowed to carry any personal items into the booths, which are shared by several individuals throughout the day. This ban includes photographs, magazines and books, money, purses, wallets, cell phones, blackberries, etc. They cannot eat or smoke in the toll plazas. They are not allowed to wear hats or other headgear that can obscure their actions inside the booth. They can have nothing on their person, nor can anything be displayed in the booth that may help them conceal money, obscure security cameras or allow them to create a diversion to hide their activities. They cannot make or receive personal phone calls while in the booth (cell phones have cameras, and we can’t chance them taking photos of the equipment and the proprietary software, which could allow hackers to get in the system.) And they shouldn’t be texting or talking on the phone anyway—they should be serving our customers. While the majority of workers are very honest, there are those few individuals who will try to steal toll money or shortchange customers or conduct other illegal activities from inside the booth. The security cameras and procedures in place ensure that we are being good stewards of the public monies collected. Collectors are aware of these restrictions and procedures when they are hired.
Most importantly, however, and this drives all decisions on the Turnpike, it is about minimizing driver distractions at the toll plazas and ensuring worker and motorist safety. When a crash occurs at a toll plaza due to driver distraction, it often involves a toll worker injury— sometimes even a critical or fatal injury. Signage and instructional messaging were recently standardized at the toll booths to minimize driver distractions. The latest change in policy occurred in mid-October and, for the same reasons set forth above, extends the policy to the grassy areas in front of the toll facilities and the parking lots adjacent to the buildings.
In mid-October, we received an email complaining of demonic displays (Halloween) in the lawn area between the booths and the tolls administration building at a toll plaza in Tampa, which surprised us because nothing is supposed to be located on the right of way except information signs. We also received a few phone calls, both complaining about and complimenting them. The display was erected by contracted toll collectors with all good intentions, but they did not seek permission through the normal traffic operations protocol to set up the display. The display was removed. A similar type of display was erected in South Florida at a toll plaza. Even if they had requested permission to set up a display, it would have been denied by the traffic engineers for reasons of motorist safety as the displays created distractions at a toll facility. In this case they were Halloween displays, but they could have been dancing polar bears or a sign saying “Happy Birthday _____.” No displays or signs that distract drivers are allowed on the side of the road and if proper procedure had been followed, they never would have gone up in the first place. This doesn’t even begin to address federal and state guidelines on obstructions and hazards on the right-of-way, which includes what can and cannot be placed, and how far it can be placed, off the shoulder of the roadway because signs and other objects can be of great hazard to a motorist if they leave the roadway proper.
Just several weeks ago a distracted driver talking on his cell phone swerved to avoid hitting the car in front of him at the Osceola Parkway ramp to the Turnpike. He ran up on the sidewalk, took out the safety attenuator which closed two lanes until it could be repaired the next day (and created a huge backup on the Parkway), and smashed into the building. Toll workers have been killed and severely injured by crashes at toll plazas. Drivers should be concentrating on the car in front of them, not looking at displays on the side of the building or trying to view decorations. Open road tolling has reduced crashes at plazas by 55 to 75 percent and it is our job to make sure those crashes continue to go down.
The Florida’s Turnpike workforce is indeed diverse, and includes workers from all around the world, and they have always been free to celebrate their various secular and spiritual holidays–whether its Christmas, or Kwanza or Easter or Hanukkah–in the employee break rooms, in public areas that are not a distraction to drivers, and at their personal non-shared work stations. No official or unofficial policy or pressure has been brought to bear regarding restricting or banning employee celebrations of any holidays. The Turnpike’s employees bring in and set up seasonal or holiday displays in many if not most Turnpike buildings. Toll funds collected from motorists are not expended on ANY holiday decorations. During the holidays, Turnpike and consultant employees are free to wear holiday jewelry, bells on their shoes, or other discreet decorative items so long as they are wearing any required uniforms. Employees’ appearance is always expected to be professional and reflect a positive image in representing Florida on the Turnpike system.
If you have any questions, I’d be happy to discuss it with you or your readers at the addresses below.
Public Information Officer
Florida’s Turnpike Enterprise
Turkey Lake Service Plaza, Milepost 263
P.O. Box 613069
Ocoee, FL 34761
800-749-7453, ext. 3492
407-822-6479 – Fax