2007-08-02 / Front Page

Motorists may find bridge crossing easier some day

EZPass would end use of tokens
By Dotti Farrington

The Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority (RITBA) is seeking to hire a consultant to evaluate the appropriateness of using an electronic toll collection system that could cost more than $2 million to install. The system, EZPass, is widely used in the northeast and would replace the system of discounted tokens, David Darlington, authority chairman, reported Monday.

He said authority directors and staff members have been collecting data about such a system for three years. They are convinced it would provide a valid convenience for users of their Pell - Newport Bridge, the only toll link in the Rhode Island road system. The authority has issued a request for proposals for consultation about the system. No deadline for receipt of proposals was set, according to the chairman.

Darlington said he expects EZ Pass would mean the end of the tokens, but cash tolls would continue to be taken. He said specifics about the collection system, when it would be installed and started, and the impact on toll rates was to be determined in conjunction with the consultant studies and findings. If the authority decides to start EZPass, it is not expected before 2009.

He suggested a major factor in the authority's considering EZ Pass is the finding that the usual annual fee of more than $200,000 for its use would be about $12,500 for the Pell toll. He said that cost difference was enough to convince the authority it might be cost effective, and should be studied further.

Toll amount

The $2 cash rate (for two axle autos and vans) to cross the Newport Bridge has been the same since the bridge opened in 1969. There have been no increases. Darlington said the rate in effect was decreased twice when tokens were provided at discounts of 11 tokens for $10 or not quite 91-cents each; and then offered as 60 tokens for $50 or not quite 84-cents each. About 10 million vehicles crossed the bridge in each of the recent years, of which only about one fifth (about two million) being cash customers, according to authority documents.

Darlington said the authority frequently reviews the rate structure, and after all this time, consideration is given to raising the rate, but no such decision has been made. He said the impact of EZ Pass costs would contribute to further discussion about the rate, but EZPass would not automatically be the reason to raise the amount of the toll. He emphasized that the authority goals are to eliminate congestion, reduce costs and keep the toll rate the same, if at all possible.

He also stressed that the system would only have a small impact on staff because toll collectors still would be needed because of "matrix of considerations," including the continuation of cash tolls. "All aspects are being discussed, all are on the table, all are being grappled with," Darlington commented.

According to the RITBA website, the "collection equipment at the Newport/Pell Bridge is designed to accommodate the EZPass system. However, our present level of traffic does not warrant the required additional investment that would be necessary in order to participate in the system."

The chairman said EZPass costs the operator of each vehicle up to $35 for the device, plus whatever rate is set, possibly about 50 to 70 percent of the cash rate, or $1 to $1.40, of a $2 cash rate, if it goes unchanged. The charge for each toll crossing is made to the individual's credit or debit card.

Some systems that use EZ Pass have retained their token program, but Darlington specified that the authority was not considering retaining the tokens. Some systems eliminate the cash toll also, requiring all vehicles to use EZPass, but Darlington said the authority does not see that as an option.

EZPass would also cost the authority about one percent of the credit and debit card charges made via EZPass, or about $130,000. Based on the authority's current budget of $13 million, that represents about 99.8 percent of its revenues being from toll income.

Advertising

Darlington said another important consideration was the expectation that use of EZPass might influence more people to use the bridge, and bring in enough added income to offset costs. He reported that bridge traffic "has been flat for the past five years." He also observed that toll plaza congestion has not been much of a factor, except for special events or some times of days during the busy summer tourist season.

The chairman said that advertising the convenience of EZPass was being reviewed for its possible impact of drawing more travelers who would visit the area, and use the bridge, as an outgrowth of marketing. The authority also recently issued a request for proposals for the services of a marketing and public affairs firm "to have the primary responsibilities for planning, development, design, promotion and implementation of all public information and marketing initiatives" for the authority.

The bridge

The Newport Bridge is listed in one reference work as the largest suspension bridge and the longest bridge of any design in New England. The RITBA chairman commented that the authority needs to decide about the toll collection system before its existing system and equipment becomes obsolete, especially in relation to toll operations elsewhere. "We're observers, not drivers of the process (of toll collections)," he remarked. Most Northeast toll operations have traffic and toll revenue about ten times that of the Newport Bridge, according to industry information.

The Newport Bridge income also supports the maintenance of the Mount Hope Bridge in Bristol, where tolls were discontinued in 1998.

The system

EZPass, installed in each vehicle, sends a radio signal to the toll plaza computers that read the identity of the signal and charges a pre-paid account. Early systems, starting in the 1980s, were keyed to only one facility, but evolution enabled them to be used at multiple facilities, with relatively high accuracy.

Although several companies, or systems exist (A Pass, I Pass, I Zoom, ETC, Smart Tag, Fast Lane, FasTrak, MnPass, PikePass, Smart Tag, SunPass, TxTag), many are using evolving technology to network and use each other's systems. Darlington said EZPass is the dominant system in the Northeast and the authority would seek an EZPass vendor if electronic toll collecting were installed here. Rhode Island is the only state on the eastern seaboard north of Virginia with toll roads that does not accept EZPass, he said. EZPass is not compatible with all systems in America, but that gap is closing, according to industry data.

Airports and parking also recently have started to use EZPass systems, and other applications are being tried or considered, such as those with commerce implications, especially in the trucking industry.

Public response

Public reluctance has occurred with some additions of the systems, including one of the most recent in New Hampshire. Opponents there said the system costs more than the benefits; it was paired with a rate increase, seen as a back door way to raise toll rates; fears were voiced about privacy invasion because the toll and charge records document the time whereabouts of vehicles; and various reports about inaccurate billing and other malfunctions were cited.

Drivers are using, whether reluctantly or enthusiastically, the systems. Latest reports, reflecting data a year ago, are that nearly 60 percent of toll payers use the electronic options over cash and/or token payment.

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