MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) – Opposition to tolls for the proposed $2.1 billion Mobile River bridge and Bayway project largely have focused on the bottom line – $6.
But a supplemental environmental impact statement filed by the Alabama Department of Transportation shows that the true cost could be as high as $9 for drivers who have not installed a transponder device on their vehicles. The document contains a provision allowing for the private group that will be selected next year to build and maintain the system to include a 50 percent surcharge on tolls.
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“The surcharge? It has been available on all of our documents, yes,” said project spokeswoman Allison Gregg.
But Gregg acknowledged that ALDOT officials have not highlighted that extra cost.
“To my knowledge, we have not discussed in public, but the information is available,” she said.
As the surcharge becomes more widely known, it likely only will add to the intense opposition in Mobile and Baldwin counties. It took some area residents by surprise when FOX10 News informed them of the surcharge.
“No, I was not aware of that,” said Baldwin County resident Celia Waters, who was attending a recent town hall meeting hosted by U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Fairhope).
Waters said it is one more reason to oppose the project.
“Very aggravating to hear that,” she said. “It makes me wonder about the sincerity of the people in Montgomery. I really doubt it.”
Spanish Fort resident Larissa Goodrich agreed.
“That’s the reason we are opposed to any type of proposed tolls, because it doesn’t matter if they say six or a dollar; it can be raised,” she said.
There is a way to avoid extra fees – the purchase of a transponder for $5 to $10, which automatically will deduct funds from a prepaid account or a credit card. And drivers who buy a monthly ALGO pass for $90 will get unlimited use of the 10-mile system. That equates to a toll of about $2.25 for commuters who make one round-trip each workday.
Baldwin County gas station owner Kevin Spriggs, who has helped spearhead opposition to the toll project, said no discount is going to satisfy commuters.
“The reaction from just about every elected official I’ve talked to, as well as, you know, everyday working people is that, no way do they want a toll of any kind for any reason,” he said.
Officials contend the surcharge is necessary because of the difficulty of collecting tolls from drivers who do not buy the transponder. In order to keep traffic moving on Interstate 10, the new six-lane bridge and expanded Bayway will not have tollbooths or an option of paying cash.
Instead, people without transponders will be charged through toll-by-plate technology that uses gantries to take photos of license plates and then sends bills through the mail to the vehicle owners.
Drivers will be charged for each segment of the 10-mile route they drive. A one-way trip across the entire length between Daphne and the Virginia Street interchange in Mobile – using either the new bridge or the existing Wallace Tunnel – will cost $6. Drivers going only part of the way will pay less. But bills sent through the mail will, at the private company’s determination, include the 50 percent surcharge.
ALDOT expects to lose a lot of revenue from unpaid tolls and from vehicles that whiz past the toll points without the cameras getting a clean shot of the plates. In industry parlance, that lost revenue is “leakage,” and it could be substantial.
An ALDOT traffic study last year estimated that $141.9 million would go uncollected during the first 10 years of operation. That’s more than the administrative costs of running the system and almost 9.5 percent of total projected revenue.
State officials expect the leakage rate to diminish over time as more drivers buy transponders to take advantage of the discount. Agreements allowing residents of other states to use their toll passes, such as Florida’s Sun Pass and Georgia’s Peach Pass, also are a possibility.
“Leakage is something we are researching and pulling in best practices from other states who have gone through this before, so that we make sure those who use the alignment, pay for it,” Gregg said.
Other states that use electronic tolling have confronted the issue.
Maryland officials say more than 500,000 out-of-state drivers own more than $100 million in unpaid tolls. A new law that took effect there last month allows state officials to turn over those debts to a collection agency.
Pennsylvania authorities last year brought criminal charges against some drivers, including a woman named Lori Yearick, whom prosecutors accused of taking 1,645 trips on the Pennsylvania Turnpike without paying tolls. Authorities said she racked up $92,000 in delinquent tolls and penalties. She pleaded guilty last year, agreeing to pay a $12,500 fine and perform community service.
The bridge at the end of the Foley Beach Express in Orange Beach also imposes a surcharge on drivers who use one of the cashless lanes. That charge is $5 unless the driver has a prepaid account. Many download the ALToll-by-Plate app on their cell phones to avoid the fee, according to administrators.
Because a private company owns the bridge, it would not discuss toll collection data in detail.
But American Roads LLC CEO Neal Belitsky told FOX10 News in an email that “our toll by plate payments fall within national norms.”