E-Z Pass forum answers questions
Questions, concerns and controversy continue to surround the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority's planned implementation of the E-Z Pass program on the Newport Pell Bridge.
A final public information forum was held last night at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Newport to address lingering public questions and concerns regarding the program. The forum differed in style from the last three held in Jamestown and Newport at the request of State Senator Teresa Paiva Weed (D-Newport, Jamestown).
Previous forums were conducted in a more casual one-on-one format, whereas last night's forum consisted of formal presentations by David Darlington, chairman of RITBA, and Jay Johns, a representative from Wilbur Smith Associates, the transportation engineering firm responsible for the implementation of the E-Z Pass program, followed by a public question and answer period.
Johns began the presentation with a basic overview and history of the E-Z Pass program. Darlington followed with a list of frequently asked questions and answers. These included:
Q: How do I sign up?
A: In person at the Pell Bridge administrative office, on-line, by phone or by mail.
Q: Do I need a separate transpon- der for every vehicle?
A: No, transponders may be interchanged.
Q: How do I pay for the transponder?
A: RITBA accepts cash, check, credit or debit cards (debit cards must be backed by a major credit card.)
Q: How many transponders can I request?
A: Four for a private account, unlimited for a business account.
Q: Can I use a transponder from another state?
A: Yes, but you will receive the lowest E-Z Pass rate. The lowest local rate will only be available through a Rhode Island transponder.
Q: How much will the transponder cost?
A: Final costs have not been set. RITBA is currently considering an initial purchase cost of $20.95 with an additional $5.00 administrative fee to cover the cost of distribution.
Q: Are rates going to increase when E-Z Pass is implemented?
A: No, the E-Z Pass program only changes the method of collection. Rates will range from .83 cents to $2.00. Any discussion of increased rates will be delayed until after the Governor's Blue Ribbon Panel on Transportation makes their recommendations.
Darlington concluded by saying that the program is slated to be in place and operational by the end of this year.
A formal public forum for questions and answers was held immediately following Darlington's presentation.
On the agenda, once again, was the on-going concern regarding the tolls on the Newport Pell Bridge being utilized to maintain other bridges, in particular the Mount Hope Bridge. Jamestown residents Donna Perry and Robin Yoffa, Newport residents Russ Milham and Martin Cohen and Middletown resident Norm Champagne all made reference to the fact that there is no toll on the Mount Hope Bridge and that local residents are essentially double taxed. Champagne's comment, "This toll represents an unfair tax. There has to be a different way of collecting revenue from all state residents rather than doubling the burden of a few," was met with applause. Darlington responded by reiterating his previous statements on this issue. "Although RITBA could technically re-institute a toll on the Mount Hope Bridge, we would be confined by past legislation to hold the tolls at those set in the 1950's. We would have to charge 10 cents for local traffic and 35 cents for cash traffic. Obviously that would not be economically feasible. We are waiting for the Governor's Blue Ribbon Panel on Transportation to make their overall recommendations on revenue and transportation before looking at this issue again. In any case, increasing the previously set limit on toll amounts for the Mt. Hope Bridge will require legislative action," he said.
Newport city council member Mary Connolly raised another important issue regarding rates on the Newport Pell Bridge. "There is a basic suspicion that this E-Z Pass system is just another way to increase the tax burden for locals without anyone else sharing in the cost. There had been discussions in process regarding the possibility of increasing tolls prior to the E-Z Pass discussions. Now, somehow, the toll question hasn't been answered and this has caused a deep suspicion and mistrust," she said. Darlington again made reference to the Governor's Blue Ribbon Panel in his response. "Let me be clear, the issue regarding the need to increase tolls remains on the table. Our board needs to insure that we have sufficient revenue to maintain the integrity of the bridges. We had, in fact, begun these discussions prior to the Governor's establishment of the Blue Ribbon Panel. We are awaiting their recommendations before re-visiting this issue. The issues of increased tolls and the E-Z Pass program are two separate concerns. The E-Z Pass system is just a different way of collecting those tolls whatever they might be," he said.
The issue of out-of-state transponders was also a hot button issue. Jamestown resident Richard Allphin's comment, "I don't believe that you cannot code my out-of-state transponder to reflect a local rate. I'd rather have you say, 'we could do it, but we are not going to, rather than say you can't do it," was followed by strong applause. Darlington confirmed Allphin's assessment but added a disclaimer. "I believe it is possible to use software to code in a local resident on an out-of-state transponder, however we are bound by Inter-Agency Group (IAG) regulations. We have raised the issue repeatedly and we have been told that we cannot do it. We will continue to negotiate with the IAG." According to Darlington and Johns, the IAG is a multi-agency inter-state agreement. It is not a board or an office, Johns said, it is a document outlining these agreed upon regulations.
A final concern raised by participants in the forum concerned lowincome residents, students and the elderly. Several methods of making transponders more affordable, as well as the possibility of providing some transponders at no cost are being considered, Darlington said.