Open-road tolling should be ready for Newport’s busy summer
The upcoming America’s Cup World Series and other summer events are driving a number of local infrastructure improvements. There is the resurfacing of lower Thames Street in Newport, infrastructure improvements at Fort Adams, and of greatest interest to Jamestown residents, the ongoing work on the Newport Bridge.
Painting and repair of the bridge has been going on for many months, and more recently a project to replace several of the bridge’s tollbooths with open-road tolling got underway. According to David Darlington, chairman of the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority’s board of directors, the four middle lanes of the toll plaza are being removed and replaced with two open lanes.
The two new lanes will allow EZPass users to pass through while maintaining the posted speed of 40 mph instead of having to slow down at a tollbooth and wait for a gate to rise. A gantry over the road will have E-ZPass signal-reading equipment as well as cameras to capture the license-plate number of anyone who violates the center lane of the toll plaza.
The present lanes at the toll plaza are less than 10 feet wide, which prevents drivers from safely going through them at the posted speed. Darlington said that the issue of getting RITBA employees to the tollbooths has also been a factor in having drivers slow down. That problem has been resolved by the construction of a tunnel that allows employees safe access.
“The new lanes will be 12 feet wide,” Darlington said. “One headed west, one headed east, with a two-foot buffer on either side. At 40 mph, that should be plenty of space. And we’ve put a tunnel under the toll plaza so that our employees can get to the toll plaza without having to dodge 40 mph automobiles on their way to work.”
According to the construction contracts, the work at the toll plaza has to be finished by June 20, which means it would be done in time to handle the increased traffi c connected to the America’s Cup World Series event.
“Completion would mean that they will be operational,” Darlington said. “That doesn’t mean that the landscaping will be done, but the functionality has to be completed before the two events this summer where we are expecting a very large influx of visitors.” The two events Darlington was speaking of were the America’s Cup and the Ocean State Tall Ships Festival.
Darlington also reported that the authority will award a contract this week for a company to microplane the noticeably bumpy sections of the bridge roadway that many drivers have encountered. These bumps occur as a result of water seeping into the concrete roadway and creating “spauls.” When that happens, the concrete has to be blasted out and the rebar replaced. When the hole is refilled, it often creates bumps around the edges of the patch.
The patching system allows the authority to avoid a complete deck replacement, which could take up to four years of work, at a cost of approximately $100 million. According to Darlington, using this system has extended the life of the roadway about 20 years longer than was expected when the bridge was built. He expects that the patching system can still be effective for another 10 or 12 years. This project is also scheduled to be completed by late June.
Meanwhile, the painting and repair of the bridge structure that has been going on since last year continues unabated. Darlington said he expects the project to be done on time, which would mean later this summer. The painting project doesn’t obstruct traffic, although sometimes a portion of a lane is closed when equipment and workers have to be moved from one position to another. Darlington promises that even that relatively minor obstruction will be gone during the busy summer event period.
Another RITBA project that is scheduled to be completed by the end of the June is the reconstruction of the authority’s headquarters.
“The end of June we’re going to have lots of completed tasks around there,” Darlington said. “Right now we have three major projects: the painting of the bridge, the building, and the reconstruction of the toll plaza. It’s a disruption to the users and the employees. The only good news is that in another six or seven weeks it should be wrapping up and out of everybody’s way.”
In October of last year, the authority’s board voted to increase the toll on the Newport Bridge from $4 to $5 for cash customers, and from 83 cents to $1 for EZPass users. The increase is scheduled to go into effect on July 1. It is still possible that the increase will not go into effect if the state can identify another source of revenue for RITBA equivalent to that which would be realized as a result of the toll increase.
In reality, that alternative revenue stream would have to come from putting tolls back on the Mount Hope Bridge, although there is legislation pending that would ban the retolling of that bridge. Other pending legislation contemplates folding the currently autonomous RITBA into the state Department of Transportation.