A tale of three bridges: Tolls have begun on one Bay City bridge, construction slated for two others

A couple years from now, Bay City still will have four bridge crossing the river, but one will be brand new and two recently refurbished. Before we get there, though, we’ve got a lot of construction ahead of us.

Tolls and bridge construction have been hot topics in town for months.

It began in 2019 when the city estimated that Independence and Liberty bridges needed between $34 million and $61 million in critical repairs. The money wasn’t in the city budget.

In December 2019, United Bridge Partners agreed to purchase Independence and Liberty bridges from the City of Bay City for $5 million, creating Bay City Bridge Partners and announcing they would eventually charge tolls to cross the bridges.

Infrastructure funding challenges aren’t unique to Bay City, says Terry Velligan, General Manager of Operations for Bay City Bridge Partners

“The problem exists in the nation and it’s not any different than any town in the nation. The municipalities don’t have enough funds to either rehab or maintain, so we provide that solution,” Velligan says. “That’s our area of expertise. We’re working through a lot of those things with Bay City. Once it’s finished, people will really see the benefit of keeping those bridges.”

He also points that toll roads are a commonly-used solution in other states. People driving to Florida for spring break, for example, likely travel several different toll roads.

While Bay City Bridge Partners was laying plans for repairing its two bridges, the State Department of Transportation announced the Lafayette Street Bridge would be completely re-constructed.

The only Saginaw River bridge in Bay City not currently slated for major construction is Veterans Bridge, which connects the one-way streets in and out of Downtown Bay City.

Road and bridge construction always brings detours and occasional delays. The good news about the construction and tolls, though, is they lead directly to improved safety.

Paul Schiefer, construction engineer for MDOT, says the Lafayette Street Bridge was built in 1938 and underwent extensive work in 2005. In 2023, the bridge is at its life expectancy, Schiefer says.

Velligan says safety also is at the heart of the work on Liberty and Independence. The repairs also should result in fewer bridge breakdowns and closures. Additionally, the company pledges to sponsors local events and create educational opportunities.

Here’s a breakdown on what’s happening on each of the three Saginaw River bridges undergoing extensive renovations. 

Independence Bridge

Work has begun to rehabilitate Independence Bridge, which is the Harry S. Truman Parkway and runs near the Bay City Town Center. Most days, the bridge is available in a limited capacity for travelers. Sometimes, though, full closures are necessary. Velligan says his team strives to minimize the closures and give as much advance notification to the public as possible.

“Maybe the contractors are moving some equipment or placing material. We close the bridge primarily for the safety of the traveling public,” he says.

The plan is to be finished with the rehabilitation work at the end of 2024 or beginning of 2025. Velligan says weather and other factors make it difficult to pinpoint when construction work will finish and tolling begin.

“As we get closer to that end date, we’ll provide notification to the city and the traveling public,” Velligan says.

Graphic courtesy of Bay City Bridge PartnersLiberty Bridge

Work on Liberty Bridge – which connects Woodside Avenue and East Vermont Street in Downtown Bay City – wrapped up earlier this year and tolling began in the summer. Bay City residents can register for transponders and cross for free until 2028.

Velligan points out that's an unusual value offered to city residents. Non-residents with transponders pay $2 for each crossing. Cars without the transponder pay $5.50 per crossing. The full tolling schedule, including fees for commercial vehicles and trucks, is available online.

“There is no other facility or state in the nation that provides five years of free tolling for residents,” Velligan says. “That is a huge, huge benefit to being a resident.”

Velligan declined to share the number of people using the bridge since tolling was instituted. “As a policy of our company, we don’t provide numbers right off the bat,” he says.

Bay City Bridge Partners says it wants to be an active member of the community. (Photo Credit: Phil Eich)However, if you cross the span regularly, it’s impossible to miss that Liberty Bridge traffic is lighter now than it was a year ago. As time goes on, bridge traffic appears to be increasing. Velligan agreed, saying “We do see incremental growth.”

Velligan added that Bay City Bridge Partners is seeing what it expected in terms of travelers.

“It’s actually normal for tolling,” Velligan says. “It is a common ramp-up period.”

He also realizes people often resist paying a toll to cross a bridge when it’s been free for years. However, Velligan says without the repairs United Bridge Partners made, no one would be crossing that bridge.

“We understand that people right off the bat didn’t see the benefit for rehabbing the bridges but remember Bay City has been dealing for the last 20 years with what to do with these,” he says.

“The alternative is to have two bridges and that unduly burdens the traveling public. This is actually a value proposition for all of Bay City. We actually came in and, with the administration, helped solve a problem. The alternative of not having us in place is you’re going to lose two bridges.”

Velligan also reminds people that not every bridge across the river charges a toll.

“There are four bridges,” he says. “You still have free alternatives. Once we get Independence done, you’ll still have two alternatives.”

When the state closes the Lafayette Street Bridge for work, the value of multiple ways to cross the river may become more obvious, Velligan adds.

“Especially with some construction projects coming up and the Lafayette Street Bridge being shut down for two years. They’re really going to see the benefit of using Liberty Bridge,” Velligan says.

Lafayette Street Bridge

The state-owned bridge, known locally as the double-hump bridge, is slated for a complete re-build beginning in 2024. Paul Schiefer, construction engineer for MDOT, stresses this is not repair work. The state plans to build a completely new bridge.

After extensive repairs, Independence Bridge will begin charging tolls. (Photo Credit: Phil Eich)“Because the bridge is now at its life expectancy, we’re going to replace it,” Schiefer says. “Basically, there are concerns about the bridge aging and increased maintenance. We’re going to keep it safe.”

The state will let the bids in March and begin work later in the spring. Work should finish by Dec. 30, 2026. Schiefer says the state approved an expedited schedule, meaning contractors will be working at the site six days a week, including holidays.

Before construction on the bridge begins, Schiefer says work will mill and re-surface Wenonah and Henry streets to accommodate increased traffic as the result of the 24 months that the bridge will be un-usable and traffic detoured.

The extended timeline is needed for repairs because of the complexity of the inner workings of bascule bridges.

“Most of the concrete and steel may be readily available, but the motors may require more detail in their design,” Schiefer says.

While the state’s focus is replacing Lafayette Street, but Schiefer says the state stays in touch with United Bridge Partners. The Lafayette and Independence construction projects will overlap. That overlap may inconvenience travelers, but Schiefer says safety is paramount.

“To us, this is an important project to get in place because of the existing condition of the structure,” Schiefer says

The estimated cost of the project is $112 million. About $90 million is coming from the federal government, including $73 million from the U.S. Department of Transportation Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. The remaining cost of the project is divided between the state, funding $20 million, and city, funding $2 million.

If Veterans Memorial Bridge experiences issues while Lafayette is under construction, Schiefer adds that the state has in-house maintenance crews ready to quickly can handle repairs.

“We’ve got in-house maintenance crews that have great response times,” Schiefer says. “Typically, they respond within 24 hours.”

Overall, the new bridge will have two driving lanes and shoulders. It will rise 22 feet above the water when closed. A sidewalk will run along one side while an 8-foot shared-used path lines the other side. The tower where the operators work will have stainless steel siding.

The state sought help from Saginaw-based Spicer Group and HDR Inc., a national consultant, as they prepare for work on the bridge.

About Bay City Bridge Partners

Bay City Bridge Partners operates a local office at 300 Center Ave. Velligan oversees several local employees working in facilities, marketing, and customer service.

The best way to save money on tolls is by getting a free transponder. City residents with the transponder pay no tolls for the bridge. Non-city residents with the transponder pay a lower rate than for people without the transponder.

The complete tolling schedule is available online at Visit the BCBP website to sign up for a transponder. 

Community members with questions can email baycitybridgesinfo@unitedbridgepartners.com or call (989) 272-2038.

“We have a very strong team in Bay City that handles the day-to-day operations,” he says. “If there are any questions, we’re encouraging people to go to the walk-in center. We have four people there who can answer your questions. Or you can call. The company wants to create opportunities to connect with the community.”
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Read more articles by Kathy Roberts.

Kathy Roberts, a graduate of Central Michigan University, moved to Bay City in 1987 to start a career in the newspaper industry. She was a reporter and editor at the Bay City Times for 15 years before leaving to work at the Bay Area Chamber of Commerce, Covenant HealthCare, and Ohno Design. In 2019, she returned to her storytelling roots as the Managing Editor of Route Bay City. When she’s not editing or writing stories, you can find her reading books, knitting, or visiting the bars of Bay County. You can reach Kathy at editor@RouteBayCity.com