2011-03-17 / Front Page

Open-road tolling at Pell Bridge

By Tim Riel

The Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority Board of Directors met last week and authorized Buddy Croft, the executive director of the authority, to utilize the consulting firm of Jacobs Engineering Group to see if it is feasible to change the toll process for the Newport Pell Bridge.

Open-road tolling, which is the system that the RIBTA plans to use if the financial aspect of the study comes back in its favor, is the collection of tolls without the use of booths. The advantage of openroad tolling is that vehicles can drive through toll plazas at highway speeds without having to slow down or stop to pay the toll.

If completed, traffic would be able to go through the Newport Bridge toll plaza at 40 mph, the same speed limit as the stretch of Route 138 between the Jamestown Bridge and the Newport Bridge, and the same limit that is enforced on the Newport Bridge.

“Basically, it would open up the middle lanes,” said RIBTA Board of Directors Chairman David Darlington. “There would be no toll collectors and no toll booths, and traffic would be able to drive through at the same speed limit as the highway.”

Although the middle lanes would open up for traffic, Dar- lington said that the outside lanes would remain the same. “There will still be two lanes on each side that will have toll booths and toll collectors,” he said. “The far outside lane will be used for oversized vehicles.”

Construction for open-road tolling would consist of eliminating toll booths, the center island, equipment and the concrete slabs in the middle four lanes. A gantry would be erected above the highway over the middle lanes and electronic scanners would be suspended from the gantries. The scanners would then read the E-ZPass on windshields of passing cars, allowing traffic to flow steadily under the gantry and through the toll plaza at normal speeds.

Darlington said that the construction is necessary because of how narrow the lanes are. “We can’t just open the gates and say ‘go ahead,’” he said. “That would be too dangerous because the lanes are so narrow.”

The disadvantage to open-road tolling is “leakage.” With the absence of booths and collectors at the toll plaza to enforce payment, leakage occurs when cars pass under the gantry with no E-ZPass mounted. Although Darlington said that using video enforcement systems would be instituted if the RITBA went forward with open-road tolling, he said that they would still inevitably lose money from violators who don’t pay their tickets.

“The point of the study is to let us know how much [construction] will cost and how much we will lose [from violators],” Darlington said.

Video enforcement systems are cameras used to capture the image of a license plate on a violator’s car. Darlington said after the system captures a violator, the RITBA would then issue a bill, much like a ticket, to the violator. “Generally speaking, we’ll have cameras, we’ll track them down through their license plate and send them a violations notice,” he said. “We would basically send them a letter saying that they owe us $4.” He mentioned that if the ticket were not paid in full within a certain date, the fines would then increase over time.

He said that if leakage became a chronic problem, the RITBA might ask the state General Assembly to suspend the registration of a vehicle if the owner refused to pay after being notified.

Currently, about 80 percent of cars that pass through Newport Bridge toll booths are already mounted with an E-ZPass.

The RITBA is funded completely on money from tolls. “We never receive any state or federal taxpayer money,” Darlington said. Darlington added that he expects to hear back from Jacobs in about eight weeks.

“If the study comes back and they tell us that it will cost $5 million to complete the project, then that might be affordable,” he said. “But if they come back and tell us it will be around $15 million, then probably not.” Darlington added the numbers are rough and the RITBA and its board still have to hash out a lot of the specifics concerning the finances surrounding the project. “I know one thing,” he added, “we have no intentions of raising the toll.”

If the study came back and it was feasible to begin instituting open-road tolling for the Newport Bridge, Darlington said that he didn’t expect much – if any – job losses. He said that it would most likely be a “net wash.” Of the 23 unionized workers at the RITBA, Darlington said that four are maintenance workers and the 19 remaining would still be needed for the four toll booths that would remain in use. He also said that although they might not use as many workers in the booths, the RITBA would need more personnel to help with enforcement, such as sending out notices to violators.

“Open-road tolling is the next phase for tolling entities,” Darlington said. “After that, it’s all-electronic tolling, which is basically saying that you’re an E-ZPass user or a violator. We aren’t ready for that. We still want to keep a few toll booths open.”

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