Newport This Week

State Leaders Talk Tolls

Lawmakers will have more time to mull a proposal that would eliminate the need for tolls on the Sakonnet River Bridge and restructure the state’s transportation funding mechanisms after a pair of legislative panels extended the tolling authority of the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority (RITBA) from April 1 to May 15.

Calling for the creation of a statewide infrastructure bank, proponents say the proposal looks beyond the issue of tolling a single East Bay span, and instead offers a “holistic solution” to upgrade the state’s aging network of roads and bridges.

Rep. John Edwards, a Tiverton Democrat, proposed the legislation along with state Sens. Chris Ottiano (Portsmouth, Tiverton, Bristol) and Louis P. DiPalma (Portsmouth, Middletown, Newport, Little Compton). If approved, it would create a new Infrastructure Trust Fund using a number of existing revenue streams to create what Edwards called a “predictable pool of funding” for the state’s transportation needs.

The proposal would also encourage mass transit by providing additional funding for RIPTA.

Funding for the program would come from several sources, including diverting 2.5 percent of anticipated state revenue that would normally flow into the state’s General Fund and imposing a five percent surcharge on DMV fees for the first five years.

All new monies from the uninsured motorist fund would also be dedicated to the cause, as would any gas tax revenue that becomes available as the state assumes the Department of Transportation’s debts.

“What the committee has done is try to solve a statewide issue here,” said Rep. Edwards. “This piece of legislation brings us together to solve all the state’s infrastructure problems.”

Sen. DiPalma agreed. “What we have here is fair and equitable,” he said.

Added Ottiano: “These numbers make sense and are doable.” Rhode Island, he said, has the chance to do what no other state has done. “Every road and every bridge is in this. It’s not about one bridge. It’s about all of us.”

Also appearing before the House Finance Committee was Department of Transportation director Michael Lewis, who, while not endorsing the plan, said that if the program were able to raise the estimated $1 billion being projected to fund transportation improvements, it would represent a game change for the state.

“We could go from worst to first,” Lewis said, adding, “We predict that if we keep the same level of funding today…our bridges are going to go from 20 percent structurally deficient to 40 percent structurally deficient.”

According to Edwards, it’s estimated that the new Sakonnet River Bridge will require just over $1 million to maintain over the next several years. Similarly, maintenance on the Jamestown Verrazzano would also be minimal, as both spans use significantly more concrete and modern construction methods specifically designed to withstand the harsh effects of salt water.

“We’re not doing this in the middle of the night” at the end of the session, said Ottiano. “Here we are in the middle of March, with time to think about it.”

If approved, responsibility for both bridges would be transferred back from the RITBA to the state, and a new Rhode Island Bridge Authority would be established as part of the Department of Transportation. That entity would maintain responsibility for the Mount Hope and Newport Pell Bridge, where tolls would remain.

While the proposal grew out of frustration stemming from the imposition of tolls on the Sakonnet River Bridge, the authors of the legislation sought to draw attention to the broader implications it could have for the rest of the state.

According to Edwards, with the majority of the state’s failing bridges located in Providence County, the new Infrastructure Trust Fund would have an impact well beyond the East Bay.

But it could also have a disproportionate impact on motorists who rely on the Pell Bridge.

Members of RITBA’s board of directors have met to discuss plans that could see tolls increased from their current levels from 83 cents per crossing for Rhode Island E-ZPass holders to $1 per crossing, with non-E-ZPass users faced with a $5 charge each way.

According to RITBA Executive Director Buddy Croft, the tolls are needed in order to pay for an estimated $250 million in scheduled maintenance on both the Pell and Mount Hope bridges.

Emphasizing the need for “clarity,” Croft testified that his board is seeking direction in order to preserve its favorable bond rating. “We just are trying to figure out where we are at the end of the day,” Croft said.

With the federal highway trust fund teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, there is certainly an acute need to shore up local and state infrastructure funding. For its part, Rhode Island is currently counting on $200 million from the federal trust, which funds roughly $2 billion in infrastructure projects every year. Locally, money for the city’s Broadway Streetscape Improvement Project is among the funding that’s being held up due to partisan wrangling.

The legislation crafted by Edwards, DiPalma and Ottiano is meant to gird against that uncertainty.

Larry Fitsmorris, a Portsmouth resident who has been outspoken against the bridge tolls, described the legislation as “a real opportunity” for the General Assembly to holistically address the state’s infrastructure needs.

However, not everyone is sold on the idea of eliminating the current 10 cent toll on the Sakonnet River Bridge and folding RITBA into the state DOT.

Some, including Newport Rep. Peter F. Martin, believe firmly in the idea of user fees – that is, charging those who use an asset to help pay for it.

That’s been the driving force behind the tolls on the Pell Bridge for over 50 years.

Martin believes the same reasoning should be applied to the new span.

“I do not believe that my constituents should be the only ones subject to a bridge toll,” he said, adding that the East Bay’s bridges are critical public assets and shouldn’t be left to “compete with the need to maintain all of the other bridges and infrastructure in Rhode Island.”

“Those who went before us left the maintenance of the Sakonnet River Bridge to us. We should not ‘kick the can’ down to our children,” he said, adding, “I do not believe that these assets should exist without a viable, longterm plan to protect them.”

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