By Meg O’Neil
JAMESTOWN – It won’t be long before E-Z Pass customers won’t have to hit the brakes when they go through the toll plaza at the Newport Pell Bridge. According to Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority Chairman David A. Darlington, two open-road tolling lanes are being built to allow drivers with an E-Z Pass to maintain the 40 mph highway speed limit as they go through the tolls.
Currently, all E-Z Pass drivers must come to a complete stop in front of a mechanical gate before proceeding at 10 mph after the gate lifts.
“One thing our customers have been consistent in telling us is that they wanted an option that doesn’t require them to stop at the gates on the way to and from the bridge,” Darlington said.
With the installation of the new lanes, an overhead “arbor system” will detect the E-Z Pass as a car drives through the open lane, and the toll amount will automatically be deducted from the driver’s E-Z Pass account.
RITBA faced two challenges in creating the new system: First, the tollbooth’s passageways, which were installed in 1969, were too narrow to allow drivers to safely navigate through them while moving at the speed limit. To solve that problem, the new lanes will be wider, allowing an extra two feet of space on each side of the cars.
The second problem was assuring the safety of tollbooth employees, who currently are able to cross the toll plaza to reach other work stations while the cars are stopped at the gates. But when the two new gate-less center lanes open, employees will no longer be able to safely cross the traffic. To solve that problem, a tunnel containing a walkway will be constructed underneath the open-toll lanes. Work on the tunnel will begin next week, said Darlington, with construction on it continuing around the clock.
“We are on a very aggressive schedule,” he said. “We expect to have all work completed before the Tall Ships Festival and the America’s Cup World Series arrive in late June.”
The $4.5 million, privately funded project also addresses the issue of non-E-Z Pass customers who might attempt to avoid paying the toll by driving through the open lanes. Darlington said that cameras and scanners will record license plates of toll-evaders, and notice of a fine will be mailed to them.