2012-09-27 / News

Tunnel finished, but negotiations to finance it breaks down

RITBA expected more drivers to dodges tolls
BY MARGO SULLIVAN

The tunnel under the Newport Pell Bridge toll plaza has been completed, but negotiations surrounding the financing of the project have turned sour.

David Darlington, chairman of the bridge authority’s board of directors, said workmen last week attached shed doors at the tunnel entrances on both ends of the toll plaza. The interior has been painted, and the final electrical wiring work was scheduled for the end of last week.

The tunnel was part of a $4.5 million plaza improvement project, which included ripping up the four middle toll lanes and replacing them with two wide E-ZPass open-road-tolling lanes.

“In some ways, the tunnel is the most interesting part of the project,” Darlington said.

RITBA needed the 215-footlong passageway so workers could safely travel between their tollbooth stations and their office inside the headquarters building. With cars flashing through the open-road lanes at 40 mph and faster, attempting to cross the road would be too dangerous.

The tunnel, which is sitting in 4 feet of the water table, is 8 feet high and 5 feet wide. Darlington said the construction relied on the same engineering that built Boston’s Big Dig. As a safety measure, the Jamestown tunnel has a sump pump in the passageway in case of emergency. But it has stayed dry.

He estimated revenues from toll violations would pay for the tunnel construction within about two years. According to Darlington, the authority will collect “hundreds of thousands annually” in penalties based on 10 million transits a year and 2 percent violations. The tunnel cost less than a $1 million to build. “That’s less than 20 percent of the total cost,” he said.

Originally, the entire plaza upgrade, including the tunnel, was not going to cost RITBA a dime. All the work was being financed by a private-public partnership with an Atlanta-based company named Vion. The company, which had been selected through a bid process, had also contracted to advance the authority $4 for every unpaid toll, in return for the right to collect fees and penalties from toll violators.

But over the summer, negotiations with Vion fell apart, Darlington said, when two things happened more or less simultaneously. RITBA and the company could not reach an agreement on the penalty for dodging the toll. Vion wanted a flat $85 penalty per violation, but the bridge authority deemed that figure too high to assess immediately for the failure to pay a $4 toll. Also, the bridge authority realized its actual exposure from unpaid tolls was going to be small.

Before June 22, when openroad tolling started, no one knew how many motorists would simply drive through without paying. But once the lanes opened and RITBA had real numbers, Darlington said the bridge authority realized only 2 percent of travelers ignored the tolls.

“It was not at a financially crippling level,” he said. Given that situation, RITBA officials felt uncomfortable giving the private partner the fee. Once the situation had changed, and RITBA realized it could make more money by not trading away the toll penalties, the authority lost interest in negotiating the deal with Vion.

Duncan Solutions of Milwaukee has been awarded the collection job and will be paid a rate based on the number of toll violators processed. Duncan will not keep the money from toll penalties, however. RITBA will keep those funds.

The penalties and fees will amount to a “new revenue stream,” which may be sufficient to allow RITBA to delay, if not avoid, another toll hike.

“It’s not something we were smart enough to say,” Darlington conceded. RITBA had not planned to dump Vion or “jettison them as soon as we find out it’s not a big risk” to launch open-road tolling.

In reality, Vion asked to scuttle the contract. But the situation ultimately worked out better for the bridge authority, according to Darlington, once Vion was out of the picture.

Darlington said there were no hard feelings. “They were terrific,” he said. “We parted amicably.”

Darlington said less than 1 percent of travelers were not paying before open-road tolling started. RITBA collected fees, but there were not many violations. “Most people paid,” he said.

If the violators did not have any money, toll collectors would take their driver’s licenses and write down their contact information. The authority would then bill them for the toll and any applicable fees and penalties. The few repeat offenders were referred to state police, he said.

The authority insists on collecting the tolls because those revenues pay for bridge maintenance. If a driver fails to pay, that means the people who obey the rules have to end up paying more to cover the loss from scofflaws. “That’s unfair,” said Darlington.

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