2013-10-17 / Front Page

Panel Mulls Toll Solution

By Tom Shevlin

The State House panel charged with analyzing the way the state's East Bay bridges are funded met for the second time this week, inching closer to putting forward a formal proposal that could help determine the fate of the controversial tolling on the Sakonnet River Bridge.

Formed in the wake of an uproar following a last minute deal to implement a 10-cent toll on the new bridge, the Special Legislative Commission to Study the Funding for East Bay Bridges first met in September with the express purpose of developing an alternative funding mechanism to maintain the new span between Portsmouth and Tiverton; however, the commission made clear that the discussion was just beginning.

On Wednesday, the panel met again, this time exploring more specific proposals to help offset the need for the toll.

One concept explored would involve the creation of an East Bay Infrastructure Fund, which could provide funding for bridge maintenance through a mix of state and federal funds.

Previously, toll opponents have proposed using increases to the state's motor vehicle registry fees or possibly the gasoline tax as a means to fund the new span.

Whatever the final outcome, according to a report provided by the House Finance Committee, finding a dedicated revenue stream to ensure the future maintenance across the East Bay's bridges is a critical element to improving the state's road and bridge infrastructure, which has been ranked consistently as among the worst in the nation.

The new Sakonnet bridge, which came online last year and was paid for primarily through federal transportation funds, represents not only a big investment in construction, but will also be an outsized responsibility for future generations if not properly cared for.

That was the primary driver in the state's decision to transfer future responsibility of the bridge from the state Department of Transportation to the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority (RITBA) last year.

As RITBA officials point out, when taken as a whole, the Newport, Mount Hope, Jamestown, and Sakonnet River bridges will require upwards of $200 million over the next 20 years just to maintain.

David Darlington, the chair of RITBA, continues to stress that tolls were deemed necessary only after a careful review of the agency's assets.

However, if an alternative funding stream can be developed and secured, then the tolls could be eliminated with approval from the General Assembly.

That should come as welcome relief to protestors who have mounted a vocal campaign against the tolls since they were announced last spring. Several members of the public who oppose the tolls were in attendance at this week's meeting, which included a presentation from RITBA.

The commission, which was formed by a group of East Bay legislators that included Aquidneck Island State Sen. Louis P. DiPalma, is hoping that a formal proposal can be finalized by January.

What that proposal will look like is still an open question, and will need to satisfy bondholders who signed off on a plan to transfer responsibility for both the Jamestown and Sakonnet bridges on the condition that a dedicated revenue stream be provided for ongoing maintenance.

Legislators will have until next spring to debate the issue. At that time, RITBA is expected to raise tolls beyond the nominal 10-cent fee currently in place.

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