2014-03-07 / Front Page

Debate on Tolls to Unfold

By Tom Shevlin

The coming weeks are expected to be critical in the state’s decisions regarding the fate of the Sakonnet River Bridge tolls.

“This spring is when the rubber is going to hit the road,” said State Department of Transportation head Michael Lewis.

With a nominal 10-cent toll currently in place on the new span, legislators are working to develop potential alternatives that would pay for the bridge’s upkeep without imposing a direct user fee on motorists.

Legislators in 2012 approved a transfer of the Sakonnet Bridge, along with the Jamestown Verrazzano, from the state DOT to the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority, which has long relied on tolls to maintain the Mount Hope and Pell bridges. The tolls went into place in August of 2013.

However, faced with community backlash, leaders in the General Assembly began to back away from that plan last year, and have been publicly pledging to develop an alternative funding mechanism for the new span.

Lewis said that he expects discussion surrounding the tolling scheme to heat up over the next few weeks.

Already, state lawmakers have proposed delaying any possible toll increase until July 1. RITBA had initially proposed that a decision regarding the tolls be made no later than April 1.

However, with a special commission only recently concluding a months-long study on the issue, lawmakers are still weighing their options.

Much like the crisis facing the federal highway trust fund, policymakers are seeking a long-term solution to fund an estimated $250 million in future bridge maintenance.

To date, those proposals have included a statewide increase to vehicle registration fees and the creation of a new state infrastructure trust fund.

The latter plan would rely on a number of existing revenue streams to create what proponents say will be “a predictable pool of funding for the maintenance of all state-controlled roads and bridges.”

“Rhode Island’s transportation infrastructure is the responsibility of all Rhode Islanders. Our transportation infrastructure needs to be a priority of the entire state and needs the entire state’s support. We can do this. We must have the resolve to seize this opportunity and address the challenge once and for all. The time to act is now,” said Sen. Louis P. Di- Palma (D-Middletown, Newport, Little Compton, Tiverton).

State transportation officials estimate that they need to spend $1.15 billion over the next 10 years to bring the state’s network of roads and bridges into good repair – money that at the moment is being threatened by a national crisis involving the rapid depletion of the federal highway trust fund.

Lawmakers are expected to begin addressing the issue in the coming weeks.

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