Toll bridges coming to Bay City may be the talk of the town, but the new fees don’t tell the whole story.
United Bridge Partners, which agreed in December to purchase Independence and Liberty bridges for $5 million, hopes to deliver fewer bridge breakdowns and closures, add event sponsorships, create educational opportunities, and more. The firm also pledges to retain the current bridge tenders and hire local union contractors for the construction work.
“We want to be a part of the community,” says Kenneth L. Szeliga, United Bridge Partners vice president of construction and operations. “Our hope is when you drop $100 million in a community, hopefully that will attract and promote other economic development.”
Project Delivery Director Kevin Bischel says the firm wants to continue existing relationships and build on the expertise already in the community. “Our goal is to continue as many relationships and processes that are already in place. We don’t want to re-invent the wheel and lose that knowledge.”
Work to reach that goal has already begun.
The Colorado-based firm will do business here as Bay City Bridge Partners. From now through April, responsibility for the bridges is transitioning from the city to the private entity. The city is still performing the work, but Bay City Bridge Partners is financially responsible for operations and maintenance. After April, Bay City Bridge Partners will be solely responsible for the bridges.
The design and permitting phase is underway now. Next up is construction, which could last two seasons. The end goal is to complete both structures by 2023. The timeline is somewhat shorter for Liberty since it’s an existing bridge. Independence may take a little longer because the plan is to remove and replace the structure.
“We don’t have any hard dates yet because we need to know if there are any issues that need to be mitigated first,” Bischel said.
'Our objective is we want the local community to benefit. That’s very important to us.'
- Kenneth L. Szeliga, United Bridge Partners
Almost immediately, drivers may notice fewer breakdowns. Bischel said the Colorado-based company manages bridges all over the nation, making its employees experts in maintenance. City employees don’t have the luxury of focusing exclusively on bridges.
“We have teams that know moveable bridges inside and out,” Bischel said. “We’re going to investigate the bridges, top to bottom, and try to make them more reliable before we move into the bigger rehabilitation program.”
Eventually, Bay City Bridge Partners plans to hire a local, general manager to work out of a Bay City office. The manager will be available in the office to answer questions. He or she will also take information to local events to keep people informed. The goal is to reduce frustration as people learn the new system.
“We’ve found that’s very successful,” Szeliga says. “People still like that face to face interaction, so that’s a big part of what we do.”
The local manager will focus on explaining how the tolls work. Toll bridges are a new concept in Bay City, but not in Michigan. The Sault Ste. Marie International Bridge, Mackinac Bridge, Grosse Ile Bridge, Blue Water Bridge, and Ambassador Bridge each charge drivers a fee to cross.
In Bay City, the tolling system is designed to minimize congestion and slowdowns at a toll booth. Instead, all tolls will be paid electronically.
Bay City Bridge Partners encourages drivers to install free transponders in each vehicle. The transponders are registered to a prepaid account or credit card. Electronic equipment reads the transporter and deducts the toll from the account. There is no charge for the transponder itself.
For cars without the transponder, the scanners will register license plates. Bay City Bridge Partners will work with the state to mail an invoice to the owner of the plate.
Bay City residents will pay 50 cents per crossing or can pay a $15 monthly fee for unlimited crossings. Non-residents pay $2 per crossing or can purchase the $15 flat, monthly rate. Residents living below the poverty line do not pay a toll. School buses, city-owned vehicles, and emergency vehicles also do not pay a toll.
“Our goal is to keep the tolls as low as possible,” Szeliga says. Practically speaking, the higher the tolls go, the more people will avoid the bridge. Instead of raising tolls to make a profit, Bay City Bridge Partners relies on efficiency to keep operational costs low. Private investors are funding the work.
“One of the unique aspects of our proposal is the project is already funded,” says Bischel. If tolls don’t generate as much money as projected, the investors make a lower return on investment. Bay City Bridge Partners remains committed to the community and the bridges.
That commitment extends into quality of life too. Bischel says the construction team may offer “sidewalk talks” during construction. During the talks, people can learn about construction from the workers. Schools also may be invited to participate in STEM activities with the company. In other communities, scouting groups have participated in projects involving the bridges.
It’s not all science and engineering either. Decorative lighting is a possibility. In other communities, bridges have been the site of annual bridge walks and special raffles. One of the United Bridge Partner properties even earned accolades for beauty.
For three years running, the Pedestrian Walkway of The South Norfolk Jordan Bridge, has won Coastal Virginia magazine’s annual reader survey as the region’s Best Place to Hike/Walk. The most recent award was in 2019.
For now in Bay City, the company is focused on getting ready to rehabilitate and modernize Liberty Bridge and replace Independence Bridge.
“The goal is to minimize impact on drivers during construction,” Szeliga says.
For Independence Bridge, that means building the new bridge next to the old bridge. The existing bridge will remain in use until the new bridge is open. Then, the old bridge will be demolished. The new bridge will be slightly taller, reducing the need to open it for smaller boats.
For Liberty Bridge, the tentative plan is to close one section of the bridge at a time, allowing traffic to continue crossing the river during construction.
Bay City Bridge Partners is meeting with the state to coordinate with planned work for the Lafayette Bridge.
As the project moves along, Szeliga says the community can expect regular updates.
“I could see some sort of public open house in the future just to have people come in and ask questions. We’re going to try to be very transparent,” Szeliga says. “Our objective is we want the local community to benefit. That’s very important to us.”