2014-02-14 / Around Town

No Sakonnet Toll Bill Proposed

By Tom Walsh

Three local lawmakers submitted a bill at the General Assembly this week that would prohibit tolls on the Sakonnet River Bridge while funding maintenance costs on both local and statewide spans through a new 10-year, $1 billion fund.

The local sponsors are Sen. Louis P. DiPalma, D-Middletown, Newport, Little Compton, Tiverton; Rep. John G. Edwards, D-Tiverton, Portsmouth; and Sen. Christopher Scott Ottiano, R-Portsmouth, Bristol, Tiverton.

“I’m cautiously optimistic that the bill will pass,” DiPalma told Newport This Week. “I think it’s got legs. We’ve pulled together a comprehensive plan with this legislation.” He called the bill’s having bipartisan support an important feature. “There’s collaboration in both the House and Senate,” he said, adding that influential Sen. Daniel Da Ponte, D-East Providence, Senate Finance Committee Chairman, had signed on as a co-sponsor.

Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed, D-Newport, in a cautiously worded e-mail statement to Newport This Week, called the bill “a comprehensive plan to invest in Rhode Island’s transportation infrastructure sustainably into the future.” She praised DiPalma for his effort and said, “I look forward to continuing to work with Senator DiPalma as we discuss how best to fund state roads and bridges and public transportation.”

By creating an “infrastructure trust fund” from existing revenue streams, the bill would raise a projected $1 billion over 10 years to create what was described as a “predictable statewide funding source” for statewide roads and bridges without a toll on the Sakonnet River Bridge. The measure would prohibit tolls on local bridges except for the Pell Bridge.

“This legislation not only deals with the immediate problem of the Sakonnet River Bridge tolls but also looks 10 years ahead and offers a solution to our infrastructure funding on a statewide basis,” said Senator Ottiano. “Our infrastructure is vital to the entire economy of this state. It is equally vital that it be repaired and maintained. This plan uses mostly existing funding sources without new taxes and only one new fee that will sunset in five years. It is a truly statewide solution.”

The new fee would be imposed over five years as a 5-percent surcharge to existing Department of Motor Vehicle (DMV) fees, including drivers’ licenses, registrations and vehicle inspections. The bill’s sponsors maintain that the surcharge would raise $17.5 million in new revenue over its five-year existence. “That’s just a small piece of the plan,” DiPalma said.

The bill would also transfer the Sakonnet River Bridge and the Jamestown-Verrazano Bridge from the Rhode Island Bridge and Turnpike Authority (RITBA) back to the state Department of Transportation. RITBA would no longer be an independent agency but rather would operate within RIDOT. “It would be more efficient to turn two agencies into one,” DiPalma said.

“This is a way to consider all the elements of transportation as they relate to one another, rather than piecemeal,” said Representative Edwards. “Bridges exist throughout the state, not just in the East Bay, and all of them need to be maintained safely. Having safe, functional transportation routes all over the state benefits everyone.”

The infrastructure trust fund established by the bill would receive funds through several sources other than the new DMV fees:

•By decreasing the total of anticipated state revenue that can be budgeted from 97 percent to 95.5 percent and dedicating the difference to the fund.

•Dedicating all new funds from the uninsured motorist fund to this new fund.

•Dedicating any gasoline tax revenue that becomes available as the state assumes Department of Transportation debts. Beginning in 2020, all gasoline tax revenue would go directly to the trust fund. Currently gasoline goes to pay off the bonded debt that the state incurred to meet the federal match for transportation projects.

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