Citizens of Bay City voice outrage about toll bridges

Liberty Bridge is one of two drawbridges in Bay City being sold to United Bridge Partners. Liberty Bridge will be renovated, while Independence Bridge will be demolished and replaced. Both bridges will start charging tolls. (Delta Collegiate file photo/Jaylie Dice)

By Michael Piwowarski, News Director.

Bay City resident Alex Dewitt, former candidate for the city board of commissioners, is “both surprised and annoyed” by a unanimous vote to approve the implementation of toll bridges.

Independence and Liberty Bridges are planned to reopen under new, private ownership in June 2024. Pricing rates include $0.50 per crossing for citizens of Bay City with a transponder (starting 2028) and $2 per crossing for non-residents (starting 2024).

Veterans Memorial Bridge and Lafayette Street Bridge, which are situated further south on the Saginaw River, are owned by the Michigan Department of Transportation instead of the city and are not part of the deal. They will remain toll free.

United Bridge Partners (UGP), a private firm specializing in rehabilitating bridges for underfunded cities, will buy Independence and Liberty Bridges from the city. The plan is to renovate Liberty Bridge and demolish Independence Bridge, building a new, taller one in its place.

Independence and Liberty Bridge, which are city owned, are faced with deteriorating conditions and a dire need for repairs. Multiple options have been mulled over by the city, including a county wide millage, but instead they have chosen an option to privatize the bridges.

As UBP assumes operation of the bridges as a result, motorists will have to pay a toll to cross them.

“For all the humming and hawing about this company over the past two years,” says Dewitt, “a unanimous vote shows that they were unwilling to address issues the public confronted them with and they just came to the conclusion everyone expected.”

City residents came to the meeting Monday, Dec. 16 to voice their concerns to the board of commissioners.

Dewitt, who manages the “Get Accountable Bay City” Facebook page, was one of the many individuals who made public comment before the vote, saying that there are a lot of red flags remaining in the proposal.

“Do we want to trust them to change their ways?” Dewitt posted on his Facebook page in advance of the meeting. “Do we trust them to send invoices in a timely fashion since if you look at their reviews […] you see they send bills past date, put liens on your license and charge you absurd late fees?”

UBP’s past projects include the South Norfolk Jordan Bridge in Chesapeake, VA. Google reviews indicate several problems, including billing disputes and poor customer service.

Earlier this year, a group of commissioners met with UBP privately. The city chose UBP out of three companies that offered proposals to operate the two bridges. American Roads and Kiewit were the other two companies.

“The other two were more of a give and take negotiation based on their presentations,” Dewitt told the Collegiate. “They wouldn’t have absolved all of the monetary issues with the City but gave us the ability to try and relieve some of the pressure without selling the bridges. Essentially maintenance contracts.”

UBP’s plan calls for demolishing the current Independence Bridge and building a new, taller bridge in its place, which will be 10 to 12 feet higher. In addition, Liberty Bridge will be rehabilitated instead of replaced. Both bridges will charge tolls.

UBP will pay Bay City $5 million in acquiring the bridges: $2 million upon signing the agreement and $3 million at settlement.

“There are no good options, that’s true,” says Dewitt. “But showing people the final decision for at least two different plans would have been better for public opinion. If we live in a vacuum of those three decisions I preferred the ability to not sell for a service contract or closing a bridge better than a company with a history we now have to assume excess oversight on.”

This lack of open discussion was one of many “red flags” that was brought up by citizens during public comment, as well as the tolls placing an undue financial burden on citizens and the lack of voices being heard.

UBP previously wanted to partner with FIGG Bridge Engineers, the company previously responsible for the 2018 pedestrian bridge collapse at Florida International University as well as other past safety issues. FIGG is no longer listed in UBP’s offer.

Commission president Jesse Dockett was among the commissioners who responded to public comment saying that this was the only viable option other than letting the bridges collapse, even after years of extensive research on other possible options.

City manager Dana Muscott echoed this sentiment, saying that the city met with the county, state and federal governments, and also looked at bonds and grants, in order to seek out an alternative to the plan that was approved.

“We looked at everything; we had a lot of help throughout our community to look at all those issues and we were just unsuccessful,” says Muscott.

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