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More than 600,000 vehicles have used new E-ZPass lane

The new open-road tolling system at the Newport Pell Bridge has scored a “fabulous success,” according to the chairman of the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority’s board of directors.

David Darlington said that 600,000 cars have gone over the bridge in the six weeks since RITBA unveiled the open-roadtolling lane. Some 65 percent of the drivers have used the new lane, he said. So far, there have been no accidents, and feedback has been positive.

“People have been telling us how much they like driving through without having to stop at the gate,” he said.

His one concern has been over the behavior of drivers who mistakenly have landed in the EZPass only lane and then decided to stop.

“We have had 40 people stop in the high-speed lane and get out of the car and try to find somebody to take the toll,” he said. He would like to get the word out that leaving the the car in the high-speed lane is dangerous. In such cases, drivers should just continue through the tolls and deal with the violation afterwards.

According to Darlington, the problem is getting better. He said that people do seem to be learning how to navigate the lanes, because fewer people every week are making mistakes.

Darlington said because of some confusion over the amount of the penalties, the authority is giving amnesty on the fees and penalties for violations between June 22 and Aug. 1. (About 8,000 vehicles have gone through without paying the toll.) That means drivers who went through the tolls without paying will only owe the $4 toll, the same amount they would have had to pay without a Rhode Island EZPass.

“We decided we had not been clear on our message,” he said.

But starting on Aug. 1, the violators will be slapped with fees and penalties. Darlington said that’s the only fair way to deal with the loss of revenues due to people not paying.

“Otherwise, we have to raise rates on the ones that pay,” he said.

RITBA has taken advertisements in local newspapers – the Jamestown Press, the Providence Journal and the Newport Daily News – to explain the new fees.

“We’re going to err on the side of giving the customers the benefit of the doubt,” he said. Darlington added that he doesn’t want the authority to be known as the “ogre agency.”

Darlington said the initial penalty is $5 axle – or $10 per car. But the fee climbs if it’s not paid, he said. If the bill isn’t paid within 14 days from the date of the violation notice, the fee goes up to $50. After 45 days the damages jump to $85.

Also new, the RITBA headquarters building has opened across from the beach at Potters Cove. Darlington said there was no ribbon cutting ceremony. The authority received an occupancy permit on July 2 for the main building. The employees moved in within a couple of days.

Some cement work is continuing on the building exterior, as well as work on the tunnel connectors. (A tunnel runs under the toll plaza to allow employees to reach the booths without walking through the high-speed lane.) Also, the renovation of the maintenance garage is still underway. When completed, the two buildings will match. “It will carry the same canopy around the outside,” Darlington said, but the maintenance garage will not feature so many glass windows.

The final jobs are a parking lot expansion and landscaping.

According to Darlington, the new headquarters looks like an entirely new building, but is actually two new additions on both sides of the old structure. The additions increase the space by about 90 percent, he said. The old building contained about 4,000 square feet. With the new additions, the authority’s headquarters measures about 7,800 square feet.

Bill Burgin of Burgin Lambert Architects in Newport designed the building. The project was awarded after a competitive bid process.

“He is an awesome architect,” said Darlington, who noted that Burgin is known for his “heavily windowed waterfront buildings.”

The construction company, E.W. Burman of Warwick, finished the headquarters about two months early. The renovation of the maintenance garage is also ahead on schedule.

Darlington said the building cost came in on budget at $3 million, and RITBA also installed high technology, which included computers and energy-backup systems. Those upgrades cost $1 million.

RITBA Executive Director Buddy Croft and the staff have offices in the new building. Darlington and the other members of the board of directors do not have office space in the building. The board has an oversight role, he said, and doesn’t get involved in day-to-day operations.

Also, E-ZPass customers now can do their purchases inside the building. The trailers, which had been used for E-ZPass sales for the past three years, were removed Friday. “We’ll have a much bigger space for customer service,” he said.

The construction took about a year. Darlington said the renovations had been planned for more than 10 years. The original building, which dates from 1968, had a flat roof, which was causing problems. It was difficult to install new technology in that type of building, he said, and the maintenance costs were expensive.

“The roof leaked,” he said. “It had a flat, rubber roof.” Moreover, the building didn’t fit with the area. Darlington said it looked like a 1950s Soviet-era building, and didn’t provide a suitable “gateway to the south coast.”

“Everybody kept telling us how ugly we looked,” he said.