Tolls, transponders and more: Officials answer questions about Liberty, Independence bridge projects

Originally Published on March 31, 2022


BAY CITY, MI — Bay City’s bascule bridges are an important part of life along the Saginaw River. In fact, the bridges unify what used to be two cities.

“If you lived in Bay City for anytime, you know that we have a river that goes through both sides,” said Chris Girard, Bay City commission president. “The bridges bring us together, and that’s where the importance lies.”

Two of the four bridges — the Liberty and Independence bridges — are undergoing a transition as they are being turned into toll bridges as part of a public-private partnership with United Bridge Partners and its subsidiary, Bay City Bridge Partners (BCBP).

BCBP is rehabilitating the Liberty Bridge and is preparing to build a new Independence Bridge.

“We’re in a cold weather state,” Girard said. “Anytime you’re in a cold weather state, your infrastructure just gets beat up. And, so, over time, it was time. And we needed to do something, and so here we are.”

To address these changes, Bay City marketing specialist Rebecca Suhr led a virtual community conversation on Wednesday, March 30, with BCBP Project Delivery Director Kevin Bischel and commissioner Girard.

Bischel gave an update on the Liberty rehabilitation project and how it is progressing. Work started on the project in late 2021, with traffic allowed to flow through the north side of the bridge. However, Michigan’s pothole season threw a wrench in the project and caused the bridge to completely close to traffic in late February 2022 after a large pothole and severe concrete deterioration plagued the structure.

To address this, BCBP will work to finish the southside lanes so that those can be opened to traffic before the Fourth of July.

“We’re in the process of redoing the deck of the bridge, which is the pavement that you drive on,” Bischel said. “We’re taking all that off on the south side of the bridge and we’ll be replacing it here in the coming months as soon as the weather gets a little warmer for concrete to be poured.”

Work is also being done inside and under the bridge. Bischel said crews are taking apart all of the electrical and mechanical parts to make them like new.

“We’re going to make that like new and make that bridge reliable,” he said.

Bischel said the Liberty Bridge will be locked open in the meantime so that mechanical work can continue into the shipping season.

The plan is for construction to wrap up on the Liberty Bridge by the end of this year, Bischel said.

“The bridge deck on the south lanes is mostly gone and they’re starting to put rebar down to put up the new lanes, so it’s definitely here and it’s definitely moving fast,” he said.

Independence Bridge

Work has not yet started on the Independence Bridge. However, that is slated to change later this year.

Bischel said BCBP’s goal is to start working on building the new Independence later this year, with a plan to complete the project within a 2-year construction cycle. The existing structure will then be demolished.

“It’ll be a brand new bridge,” Bischel said. “It’s going to look a lot like the old bridge, so it’ll have the same number of lanes. It’ll have the same appearance generally, but it’ll be located just to the east of the current bridge so that we can build it while the old bridge is in place.”

Bischel said that the new bridge will be bigger — almost 10 to 11 feet taller to reduce openings for smaller vessels like the Princess Wenonah. The bridge will still need to open for freighters, however, officials said.

“If we raised it just a little bit, that would reduce impacts to the traveling public for those openings,” he said.

Bischel said the goal is to keep Independence open throughout the construction process. He said there might be some time when lanes have to be closed to connect the new bridge to the existing roadway.

Tolls and transponders

Bischel addressed questions during the virtual talk regarding transponders and tolls. BCBP is planning to manage tolling by using transponders, which is a small sticker-like device that will communicate with equipment on the bridge, Bischel said.

“When you go through the bridge, there will be a piece of equipment that will read that number and basically associate that with your account,” he said.

Drivers without a transponder will still be able to cross the bridge but they will have to eventually pay the toll. Bischel said there will be no barrier or traffic-controlling arms.

“The system will look at your license plate and look up through the Secretary of State’s office your mailing address, and send an invoice for that,” Bischel said.

Bay City residents will pay discounted tolls of 50 cents per crossing or a $15-per-month flat rate for unlimited crossings, according to BCBP. Non-Bay City residents will have the option to pay the same $15-per-month flat rate or an increased $2-per-crossing rate.

Vehicles and individuals who will not pay tolls of any kind include Bay City school buses, emergency vehicles and first responders, motorists in city-owned vehicles, and Bay City residents with a transponder living below the poverty line.

Bischel said an overall decline in state gas tax revenue could lead to the popularity of tolling as a new revenue option.

“In general, as a state, I think tolling might become more popular because, as we get electric vehicles, the state gas tax revenue is going to go down,” he said.

Girard echoed Bischel’s sentiments.

“Because they’re saying projections of up to 35%, 45% of all vehicles in the next decade are going to move to electric, it will the impact the structure of how we fund infrastructure,” Girard said.

“As much as it gives people consternation to do this, I think being at the forefront, it gives us opportunities too to look at how we fund infrastructure going forward.”

Leasing vs. owning

BCBP adopted a lease-based system regarding the Liberty and Independence bridges as opposed to an outright sale. The lease-based scenario was made possible after legislation was passed in December 2020 that allowed municipalities to enter into public-private partnerships for infrastructure improvements.

“We originally did an agreement with the city that kind of set the framework for both bridges, and then kind of worked through the details and developed a lease for Liberty Bridge,” Bischel said. “We’re in the process of doing that for Independence as well. In short, Bay City Bridge Partners assumes all risks, costs and even for maintenance and long-term improvements for the bridges.”

Girard said the arrangement could help funnel more dollars back into the city’s infrastructure.

“We’ve seen a decline in the amount of investment in our streets and so, as a result of this partnership, we’ll be able to take those dollars and put them in our streets,” Girard said.

Click here to watch the entire virtual community conversation with BCBP and the city.

Click here for more information on the Liberty Bridge project.

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