2009-07-09 / Front Page

RITBA outlines toll hike for out-of-state Pell Bridge users

By Adrienne Downing

The Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority board of directors is considering a toll increase for users of the Pell Newport Bridge who do not live in Rhode Island.

“This has been 19 months in the works,” said RITBA Chairman David Darlington at the RITBA board meeting Wednesday morning. “We have held seven public hearings about toll rates and have listened to what the public has to say.”

According to Darlington, the plan would not impact Rhode Island residents who use EZPass transponders. The Rhode Island resident rate would remain at 83 cents for each crossing and the commuter rate would stay at 91 cents per crossing for 31 trips in 30 calendar days.

Darlington proposed that the toll for all cash payers and non-Rhode Island residents be increased by $1 an axle. The toll for cash-paying passenger vehicles would increase from to $4 from the current $2. Bridge users with non-Rhode Island EZPass transponders would see an increase from $1.75 to $4 per crossing.

“The reality is that there is a cap to our revenue and we need to fund these repairs. It has always been a point of pride of this board of the high level of maintenance on the two bridges. The level of maintenance and safety on the bridges is our paramount concern,” Darlington said.

The chairman said that the board manages its finances well, but the structures need to be maintained and bridge traffic has been level or has decreased as much as 100,000 vehicles since 2001.

He recommended that the toll increase be considered for a formal vote at the Wednesday, Aug. 12, meeting of the board and that it would become effective on Tuesday, Sept. 8, the day after the Labor Day holiday.

“This would be the first toll increase in the 41-year history of the bridge. It comes as a result of a capital needs assessment that predicts a $223 million shortfall over the next 20 years if tolls are not increased,” Darlington said. “The safety of the bridge must remain our highest priority. We simply don’t have the resources necessary to maintain them without this increase.”

The Newport Pell Bridge is in need of an estimated $163 million in repairs over the next 10 years and the Mount Hope repairs are expected to cost $47 million.

A large portion of the repairs to the Newport span include steel repairs and painting. Darlington said the painting is not an aesthetic repair, but is to prevent steel loss.

Board member Richard Eannarino held up a list of repairs on the two bridges that are categorized as upgrades, structure improvements and safety issues, and said “This is really what it is all about. Toll increases are the way we pay for it, but what we are looking at is the safety of those bridges.”

Darlington also suggested the board do a formal study on reinstituting tolls on the Mount Hope Bridge. He requested that “in addition to the review of revenue and tolls, the study include a review of necessary revisions to current state law as well as the means by which tolls could be collected.” He made the recommendations based on a series of public meetings conducted by the authority in 2008.

Stephen Waluk, former mayor of Newport and RITBA board member, said that he could not support the motion to consider a toll increase unless more decisive action was taken to return tolls to the Mount Hope Bridge.

“I don’t think the timing is right. I cannot support raising the rate on the Newport bridge during the shoulder season without equity from the Mount Hope Bridge,” Waluk said.

The RITBA board approved a motion to hold two public hearings and then put the toll increase on the agenda for a vote at the board’s Aug. 12 by a 3 to 1 vote, with Waluk dissenting.

The RITBA board is also considering adopting a policy for future toll increases that would largely mirror the policies of other bridge authorities. Darlington said toll increases every three years would be his suggestion.

“We have witnessed the calamity of ignoring maintenance issues in other states,” Darlington said. “We simply can not allow that to happen in Rhode Island. Unfortunately, toll increases are now necessary and inevitable.”

Public meetings on the toll increase will be held in Newport at 7 p.m., on Tuesday, July 14, at the CCRI Newport Campus Theater and in Jamestown at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, July 21, at Town Hall.

Wind study

In other business, the RITBA board decided not to spend $40,000 on a wind feasibility study for putting a wind turbine at the RITBA facility in Jamestown. The authority had applied for a grant through the Economic Development Corporation, but was unsuccessful in its attempts.

Darlington said that an existing wind map shows that the authority’s property sits in one of the more consistent wind areas in the state, but the board agreed that it was not in its best interest to pursue wind power with the workload it is currently facing.

Toll collection

Executive Director Buddy Croft reported that the authority had well surpassed the number of EZPass transponders it expected to have distributed. “We were told that 25,000 transponders in a two-year period would be good, but we have passed 61,000 in six months.”

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