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Millions in free rides on Newport Pell Bridge since gateless tolling began

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JAMESTOWN, R.I. (WPRI) — Drivers going over the Newport Pell Bridge have racked up $9.6 million in unpaid tolls plus fees and fines over the last six years, yet the R.I. Turnpike and Bridge Authority is often powerless to go after them.

The vast majority of the $9.6 million — 85% — represents fees and fines, meaning only about $1.4 million is actual unpaid tolls, according to RITBA Executive Director Buddy Croft. But Croft said the authority’s finances are still strong.

“If everyone paid their tolls we would have 100% revenue and we’d be solid with 100% revenue,” Croft said. But because of the fees that come with not paying the toll the first time, “currently we take in about 102% in what the toll would have been if they paid.”

Passenger cars are charged $4 (or 83 cents for locals), but if a driver goes through the gateless gantry — called “open road tolling” — without an EZPass, the license plate is scanned and a bill is sent for $10. After about two weeks that bill goes up to $50. After one month, it’s an $85 tab.

“Some people it’s an honest mistake, some people it’s not as honest,” Croft said. “It comes to fairness. You pay your toll, other people pay their tolls, if everyone paid their tolls we wouldn’t be doing this interview.”

Roughly 240 cars a day travel over the Newport Pell Bridge without paying, or 88,000 a year, according to data supplied by RIPTA. But Croft said that represents less than one percent of the more than 10 million cars that traverse the span annually.

According to Croft, “a little less than half” of drivers pay after the first violation notice. In all, roughly 22% of violations are left unpaid.

But RITBA has few tools in the toolbox to go after in-state drivers who fail to pay the toll, and even fewer for out-of-state scofflaws.

The authority can ask the Department of Motor Vehicles to put a freeze on license and motor vehicle registration renewals when a driver goes over the bridge 20 times or more without paying, and it takes 100 free rides before RITBA can take them to court.

Records show RITBA has summonsed 201 drivers to the R.I. Traffic Tribunal since the gateless gantry system went operational in June 2012. 

“Last month the average amount owed for people that went to Traffic Tribunal was $15,000,” Croft said. “That’s a lot of ignored transits across this bridge.”

Croft said officials have put about 450 holds on motor vehicle registration and license renewals; of those, 150 drivers have paid up.

RITBA declined to provide names, but gave Target 12 a list of the top 10 violators that have been summonsed to court.

One driver owes $74,900 in unpaid tolls fees and fines — $8,840 in unpaid tolls alone — for 884 free trips across the bridge. Another owes $33,745 in unpaid tolls, fees and fines for 397 trips.

Croft said RITBIA officials work with people who have large outstanding bills and come up with a payment plan to get the debt paid down. He said they will often waive some of the fees and fines in order to make the payments more manageable.

RITBA has asked lawmakers to change the threshold that triggers action by the DMV from 20 free trips to 10, and the trigger for taking a driver to court from 100 unpaid tolls to 30.

The Senate version of the bill — sponsored by state Sens. Erin Lynch Prata, D-Warwick, and Lou DiPalma, D-Middletown — was heard before the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this month. Spokesperson Greg Pare said Senate President Dominick Ruggerio “has not had the opportunity to review this bill or the hearing yet,” but expects to do so in the coming weeks.

The House version of the bill is scheduled for a hearing this Thursday.

Rhode Island motorists make up the vast majority of drivers with unpaid tolls, but out-of-state motorists have accrued a tab as well.

Massachusetts ($64,000 in unpaid tolls) leads the pack, followed by Connecticut ($43,000), New York ($11,000), New Jersey and Florida ($10,000). All other states combined add up to $144,000 in unpaid tolls. Including fees and fines, out-of-state drivers account for $3.4 million of the $9.6 million unpaid-toll tab at the Newport Bridge. 

But unless you’re from Massachusetts, RITBA can do very little about it. Because the Commonwealth has its own tolls on the Massachusetts Turnpike, Rhode Island and the Bay State have a reciprocity agreement. So if a Massachusetts driver goes over the Newport Bridge 20 times without paying, RITBA can ask the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles to put a freeze on registration and license renewals. 

Croft said officials have been in talks with Connecticut for an agreement.

“Until Connecticut goes to tolling — and they are, as you know, they are looking at it — there is nothing that is going to make their legislature and their executive branch sign a reciprocity agreement with the state of Rhode Island,” he said.

Discussions have also taken place with New Hampshire and Pennsylvania, he said.

Tim White (twhite@wpri.com) is the Target 12 investigative reporter and host of Newsmakers for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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