Passageway built below toll plaza
When the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority decided to launch open-road tolling at the Newport Bridge this summer, the construction plans also had to include a safe way for workers to go back and forth between the office and the toll booths. David Darlington, chairman of the authority’s board of directors, said the answer was to build a tunnel under the toll plaza.
Above ground, passersby have been able to see construction workers on the job for weeks, tearing up roadway, demolishing the middle tollbooths and gates at the bridge, and replacing the old booths with an overhead openroad tolling canopy.
But all along, another part of the job – the building of the tunnel – has been happening underground and out of sight.
Now, the tunnel is done, except for a few finishing touches. When motorists pass through the toll plaza, they will drive over a 215-foot-long tube, though most of them will probably never know Jamestown’s secret underground passageway exists.
The tunnel was built for one reason, Darlington said. “It was built to get our workers to the other side of the toll plaza.”
Now that open-road tolling is here, crossing the toll plaza will be too dangerous due to the fact that cars and trucks will be cruising along at 40 mph.
The finishing touches on the tunnel will require about two more weeks to complete, but workers began using it Monday, Darlington said.
Late last week, construction workers were applying a clay material – called sodium bentonite – on the floor before pouring the final layer of concrete.
Over the next couple of weeks, workers will install electrical wiring, permanent lights, fire alarms and carbon monoxide detectors. The tunnel will also have cameras.
The tunnel is 8 feet high and 5 feet wide. Darlington compared it to a culvert. On a tunnel tour last week, Darlington explained that it consisted of sections which workers fit together, packing the seams with a foam-like waterproof material.
If water should enter the tunnel, the foam will, in effect, explode and create a seal around the water. The tunnel also has a hook-up for a sump pump, in case water should enter. The tunnel is sitting in the water table.
Darlington pointed to a line about 4 feet from the floor and said that was the water-table mark. “So,” he said, “you’re standing in 4 feet of water.”
Darlington said he had been concerned about water flooding the tunnel, but the engineers assured him that would not happen. Boston’s Big Dig, in fact, provided the engineering model for Jamestown’s tunnel.
Building the tunnel and the open-road-tolling system did not cost RITBA anything. The cost is being paid by Vion Inc. of Atlanta. The company was selected during a bid process, and Vion will collect fees and penalties from drivers who fail to pay the toll.
The fees and penalties are still being negotiated but will be announced soon, Darlington said. Currently, motorists who go through the E-ZPass gate without paying are fined $10 initially. If they fail to pay within 14 days, the fine jumps an additional $75.
Darlington said he doubted the new fines and penalties would go higher than the $85 that drivers could incur now, but that’s not definite.
Violators will not cost the authority anything, Darlington said. As part of the deal, Vion will pay RITBA $4 for every car that goes through the toll plaza without paying.
Darlington said open-road tolling was a necessity at the bridge due to public demand.
“People assumed E-ZPass meant easy passage,” he said. “It really means easy payment.”
The system has streamlined and improved toll collection, he said. When RITBA used tokens, many drivers went through the tollbooths but didn’t pay. Now, 90 percent of the drivers use E-ZPass. Darlington said 80 percent have the Rhode Island E-ZPass and 10 percent have an E-ZPass issued by another state.
People who don’t have E-ZPass still pay cash at the gated tollbooths. The cash booths are located at both far ends of the toll plaza. But most people do use E-ZPass, and they expect less of a delay at the tolls plaza as a result of buying the transponder. Ultimately, RITBA had to meet those expectations.
“Perceptions are reality,” he said. “We’ve had many, many, many requests for not having to stop at the gate.”
That’s why RITBA went out to bid last fall on a “public-private partnership,” Darlington said, to finance the construction of openroad tolling in the center of the plaza, where four toll booths used to sit. Vion chipped in $4.5 million for “all these improvements,” he said, and hired Site Resources to do the construction, including the tunnel.
At one point, authority officials considered building two offices – one on each side of the toll plaza – to avoid having workers cross in front of traffic. But that solution would have meant running two operations out of two buildings and wasn’t practical. So the tunnel became the answer.
“We’re thinking of changing our name,” Darlington quipped. “We’re the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority, but we don’t have a turnpike.” Now that the tunnel’s a reality, he joked, it’s been suggested RITBA could stand for the Rhode Island Tunnel and Bridge Authority.