2008-12-31 / Front Page

Heavy vehicles pay larger toll on Pell bridge

RITBA plans to correct weight requirement
By Adrienne Downing

A small group of local motorists were surprised when they filled out their forms for the new E-ZPass system on the Claiborne Pell Newport Bridge, a surprise that some claim has amounted to an under the table rate hike by the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority.

Under the soon-to-be-abandoned token system, vehicles weighing under 8,000 pounds pay a $2 cash toll, or are eligible to use a token that gives a discounted passage.

Only vehicles that weigh less than 7,000 pounds are eligible for the discounted rate under the new E-ZPass regulations, causing a gap into which some local contractors and service providers fall.

Chopmist Charlie's owner Chuck Masso is one of those affected by the new weight limit. Masso owns a Ford 250, which he says is under the 8,000-pound limit, but over the new maximum weight allowed by E-ZPass. "I usually travel over the bridge with my truck empty, but if someone with a truck slightly smaller than mine throws even a couple bales of hay in the back of their truck, they will weigh more than I do, yet I still have to pay a higher toll than they do," he said.

RITBA Chairman David Darlington said he is not sure where the authority came up with the 8,000-pound limit, but it was written into the regulations in 2002.

"The 7,000 pound limit used by E-ZPass comes from a federal regulation that considers vehicles over 7,000 pounds as commercial vehicles. It is used in all 13 states where E-ZPass is installed," Darlington said. "There were one million nuances to installing a system like this, and maybe five of them got through. This was one of them."

By the time word had gotten out about the loophole, RITBA was already in the process of rectifying the situation. "This was definitely not something we had a very good handle on going in, but we have asked our contractor to write a program in the software to allow us to change our charge," Darlington said.

In the meantime, vehicles that fall into the gap are not paying an additional charge, according to Darlington, because those vehicles are still able to use tokens.

"If for some reason it is not fixed by the time we stop accepting tokens, we are able to adjust an account for the difference in toll. That is the beauty of a system like this," the chairman said.

However, it is important, he said, that bridge users are aware of the reason higher tolls exist for heavier vehicles. "The more a vehicle weighs, the more wear it causes on the bridge. We had some people under the token system who were using tokens to pay for a 10,000 pound vehicle," he said.

Toll gates

Four drivers have run into the toll gates installed in the E-ZPass lanes since the system went live on Dec. 16. Darlington said two of the collisions were from toll evaders: one who was going about 60 miles per hour, one was a driver from Maine and one was a person who proceeded before the gate was completed raised. "They do not have toll gates on the E-ZPass lanes in Maine, so the driver was just not looking for gate," Darlington said. "All of the gates on the lanes today are the original gates that were installed with the system. They have breakaway pins and safety devices built in."

The gates are designed to read the transponder and be out of the way by the time a vehicle traveling 15 miles per hour gets to the gate.

"That is a very reasonable speed," Darlington said. "No one should be going any faster in that area anyway because of safety considerations."

The contractors have been readjusting the antennas to pick up the transponder signal to respond under the 15 mile per hour conditions. "They have been out at our request adjusting the antennas to get the maximum response from them. We will continue to adjust them as necessary to get the exact timing we need from them," Darlington said.

Although some bridge users have given feedback about the gates, Darlington says the gates are permanent.

"They are there to ensure revenue to the authority. We have a lot of travelers from out of state and it is expensive and impractical for us to chase toll violators, especially those from out of state," he said.

Local lanes

All toll lanes will have E-ZPass operational by mid-January, Darlington said, including the far outside lanes designed for local traffic. "The system had to be installed from the inside lanes out, but all lanes will be fully operational by Jan. 23," he said.

Three of the lanes in each direction will be equipped to accept cash or E-ZPass.

For more information about EZPass, visit www.ritba.org.

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