2010-01-07 / Front Page

Sharing Toll System, One-way Collection Eyed by Two U.P. Bridges

Authorities for Mackinac, International Bridges Meet Jointly To Explore Needs
By Mark Tower

The Mackinac Bridge at the Straits and the International Bridge at Sault Ste. Marie may explore sharing an automated toll system, and both governing boards are considering the feasibility of one-way toll collection to cut operation costs. Both structures have seen decreased traffic levels and both face costly deck replacements in the near future, although the International Bridge has now learned it may be able to postpone this major project until 2040.

Board members and staff representing the Mackinac Bridge Authority and the Sault Ste. Marie Bridge Authority met together Thursday, December 3, in St. Ignace to share information and insights.

They discussed issues faced by both, including commuter tolling, automated toll collection, proposed one-way tolling systems, insurance, traffic trends, maintenance plans, and financial forecasting.

The two boards met as a group nearly a decade ago, when the International Bridge was managed by the Joint International Bridge Authority. The meeting December 3 was the first meeting that the international board met under its new name, the Sault Ste. Marie Bridge Authority, although the board continues to be comprised of four Canadian and four United States members.

Mark Haas, deputy treasurer for the State of Michigan, also gave a report to both authorities on the state of Michigan's economy, factors affecting the current recession, and the future economic forecast.

"We have been trying to do this for a number of years," said James McIntyre, chairman of the Sault Ste. Marie Bridge Authority, a Canadian member from Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. "We share a lot in common, and I think this will be beneficial for us both."

The International Bridge connects two countries while the Mackinac Bridge connects a single state, and there are other differences, like traffic fluctuations, but their similarities are significant, especially high operations and maintenance costs and limited revenue.

The Mackinac Bridge has seen traffic increases almost every month this year and has estimated it will log 5.1% more traffic than last year.

The International Bridge didn't see its first traffic increase since August 2008 until this November, and has reported it has had 13.5% less traffic in 2009 as of the end of November.

The Mackinac Bridge has seen a traffic decrease in five of the last six years and a decreasing trend that dates to 1999, while the International Bridge expects to see decreases in four of the last six years, with traffic increases in 2005 and 2007.

The two boards discussed the pros and cons of converting to one-way tolling, something they both have considered but not implemented. The Mackinac Bridge reported studies suggesting tolling northbound traffic would be the easiest and most effective system to implement, at an estimated cost of $2 million and an estimated 30% reduction in staff. Its tool booths are at the north terminus and it would be less expensive to keep the toll booths next to the administration building, which is next to the northbound lanes.

The International Bridge found it would reduce operating costs by 20%

for a $130,000 yearly savings and has determined that the best direction to toll would be on southbound traffic. Its toll booths are at the south terminus of the bridge, and its administration buildings and customs offices are along the southbound lanes.

The group discussed using a consolidated automated tolling system, similar to the cards used on toll roads in Ohio and Illinois. Implementation of such a system would be simple, staff said, since the same software is being used at both bridges to collected automated tolls. The two boards have yet to begin any formal discussion on the implementation of such a system.

The group also discussed the feasibility of self-insurance for each bridge, compared commuter traffic and discounted rates, and presented upcoming projects for the two structures, including a major deck replacement scheduled for the Mackinac Bridge in 2017.

Boards Mull Self-Insurance

Since the Mackinac Bridge Authority made the decision in July 2009 to drop commercial insurance and self-insure, both boards were eager to hear how the new system of insurance worked.

The bridge has saved about $50,000 annually since canceling its insurance August 5, 2009, and the authority estimated it will save $200,000 a year by funding any insurance losses through a fund held for self-insurance.

The Mackinac Bridge also stopped carrying coverage for the bridge structure in 2002, said Executive Secretary Bob Sweeney, owing to dramatic increases in premiums and a removal of coverage for any terrorism related incident after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

Phil Becker, general manager of the International Bridge Administration, reported that the International Bridge also does not carry insurance for its structure, although he said the potential damage is more limited since there are multiple spans supported by pillars, unlike a suspension bridge that could be substantially destroyed with one incident.

Intergovernmental agreements between the State of Michigan and the government of Canada do allow the International Bridge to increase, decrease, or waive insurance, he said, although liability, property, and other insurance policies are currently held through private insurance companies.

Through cuts to the insurance program and higher-deductible plans, Mr. Becker said his Authority has reduced its yearly premiums from $375,000 in 2006 to an anticipated $250,000 for 2010.

The International Bridge would be open to a cooperative insurance agreement that would benefit both bridges, he said.

"We do have the ability to partner for insurance with other entities," Mr. Becker said. "It's an area we will continue looking at as an area for potential cost savings. This is exactly what we were hoping to hear about at this meeting."

Commuter Programs

Compared

The Mackinac Bridge Authority has been providing a commuter discount since 1987, when a commuter rate of $1.25 was set under the standard toll of $1.50. The percentage of total bridge traffic using the discount grew from 0.3% in 1987 to 21% in 2008, part of the reason the Authority decided to change its commuter program restrictions.

The new restrictions, which take effect January 1, 2010, stipulate

that motorists are only eligible for the discounted rate if they cross the bridge twice within 36 hours. A proximity reader card is used for commuter accounts. Commuters hold this card up to the card reader and the fare is automatically deducted from the customer account.

Mr. Sweeney estimated that with the new 36- hour rule, commuters will drop to 14% of the bridge's total traffic, and the bridge revenues will increase by about $246,952.

Mr. Becker said nearly half of the International Bridge's customer base have an IQ Prox Card, which is similar to the Mackinac Bridge's commuter cards. The International Bridge sees about 800,000 crossings each year using the Prox card, he said, and has 21,000 active commuter accounts.

The International Bridge offers commuters a toll rate of $1.75, a 30% discount from the standard rate of $2.50.

Mr. Becker said the International Bridge was looking at restricting its commuter program like the Mackinac Bridge is doing, but said administrators need to be very careful, since commuters make up about 50% of their traffic.

"We have to be sensitive to the perception of our commuters," he said. "We have to deal with it at some point, I think, but in a very sensitive way."

Condition of Both

Bridge Decks Studied

The International Bridge was facing an $80 million deck replacement in 2017, owing to the recommendation of a 2000 study of the bridge deck by Parsons Corporation, but a 2008 study by Hardesty and Hanover recommended postponing the project until 2040, with some minor repairs in the interim.

Mr. Becker said since the International Bridge has the special challenge of being a two-lane bridge, that means any major construction on the deck would be compartmentalized and work would be done at night to minimize the affect the project would have on traffic.

"We were very concerned about this, not only because we couldn't afford it, but also because it would cause major traffic problems," he said.

The original deck on the bridge was a concrete deck with a two-inch blacktop overlay, he said, which was removed in the mid-1990s and replaced with a concrete overlay. The only portion not replaced then was the 830-foot Canadian Arch, which the bridge replaced last summer on recommendation of the 2008 study.

The report recommended that the bridge authority seal any cracks, continue the proactive maintenance program, install a concrete overlay on the Canadian Arch, and place a second concrete overlay over top of the current one in 2024, at an estimated cost of $24 million.

"We won't have to do a deck replacement until the mid-'40s," Mr. Becker said. "That was extremely good news, absolutely unbelievable. We are still glowing from that good news two years ago."

A total replacement of the bridge deck, the study said, won't be necessary until 2040 and will cost an estimated $132 million. The study also reported that the excellent preventive maintenance done by the bridge was a major contributor to this postponing of the major replacement.

Mr. Becker said the International Bridge has made large annual investments in the health of its deck, spending $5,000 in 2007 in crack sealing and maintenance, $12,000 in 2008, and $8,000 in 2009.

"This is a very worthwhile investment to extend the deck service life," he said.

The Mackinac Bridge Authority has hired Modjeski and Masters to complete a $2 million study of its bridge deck, which should be done by August 2010.

The study will look at many variables, including accident history, comparisons to other large suspension bridges, maintenance history, service life of existing decks, deterioration of the deck and support structure, alternatives for both repair and replacement, aerodynamic data on replacement options, traffic during a major construction process, and overall asset management in relation to maintenance.

The deck on the Mackinac Bridge includes a concrete deck with an asphalt overlay on both approach spans, a filled bridge deck with asphalt overlay on the outside lanes of the center span, and an open steel grid deck on the center span's inside lanes.

International Bridge Authority members asked Mackinac Bridge staff how they will collect information from other bridges.

Mackinac Bridge Authority member Murray Wikol offered to share information received from Parsons about a year ago that shows information about eight bridges, including core samples, degradation, and life span.

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