2009-07-23 / Front Page

Few oppose toll hikes for Pell Bridge

By Eileen M. Daly

The proposed Newport Pell Bridge toll hikes met with minimal opposition Tuesday evening at a public hearing at Town Hall held by the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority (RITBA).

The proposed toll increases, as presented by RITBA officials, include a hike from $2 to $4 per crossing for cash tolls, an increase from $1.75 to $4 per crossing for out-of-state EZPass holders and an increase from $1 to $2 per axle for commercial vehicles. RITBA offi cials emphasized that Rhode Island EZPass users and commuter EZPass users’ tolls will remain the same at 83 cents and 91 cents, respectively – for now.

Richard Eannarino, who serves as the RITBA board of directors vice president, presented a short overview on the future of the Pell and Mt. Hope Bridges, which included a 20-year operating forecast. The report indicated that current toll revenues would leave RITBA $223 million short over the next 10 years, based on the repair recommendations made by engineering consultants, he said.

Several possible scenarios for overcoming this deficit were outlined. Without the proposed toll increases – followed by more increases in three years – even the most optimistic scenario would leave RITBA more than $100 million short, Eannarino said.

Necessary bridge repairs include re-decking, re-paving, painting, steel and concrete repairs, cable testing, maintenance and upgrades of cables, and a seismic vulnerability study and upgrade. Eannarino said many of the repairs are more complicated than they might first appear.

“The painting is more than just painting. The paint that is on there now is lead based, so it will have to be sand blasted, contained and disposed of properly,” Eannarino said.

RITBA’s highest priorities are safety, integrity and security, Eannarino said. RITBA is working closely with Homeland Security in its efforts to “harden” bridges all over America, he said.

“Our main concern is safety, safety, safety!” Eannarino said.

Eannarino said that 75 percent of toll revenues are used for maintenance of the Pell Bridge. He briefly addressed the issue of tolls on the Mt. Hope Bridge, but emphasized that RITBA does not have the authority to increase the 10-cent and 30-cent tolls that were set many years ago by the state legislature. Tolling at a higher rate on the Mt. Hope Bridge is an issue for the General Assembly, Eannarino said.

During the question and answer period, Jamestown resident Dave Dolce said many people would have willingly accepted an increase in local tolls in exchange for the convenience of the EZPass system.

In response, RITBA Chairman David Darlington said local tolls are not proposed to increase because public discussion about implementation of the EZPass system and maintaining the current local rates took place just six months ago.

“In three years, when we again need to increase tolls, I am not sure this model will continue to work,” Darlington said. He said it was unlikely that out-of-state tolls could continue to rise without some corresponding increase in local toll rates in the future. “But we just agreed to these local rates six months ago,” Darlington said.

Jamestown resident Ron Lurgio questioned whether increasing outof state users’ tolls might result in other states doing the same thing, thus increasing toll costs across the board. Darlington replied that other states already have signifi- cant reductions for local users. “In Massachusetts, for example, local residents who use the Tobin Bridge pay 40 cents, while EZPass users pay $3. You never see these discounts because you are not eligible for them,” Darlington said.

Jamestown resident and commercial user Mike Tiexiera expressed his opposition to the proposed increases. “We have a family business with a number of trucks and this will be a big increase for us,” Tiexiera said. He suggested a compromise of a 50-cent increase per axle instead of the proposed $1 increase.

Darlington said that a 50-cent increase per axle would force the local user toll to increase to $1.37 per crossing – an increase that Darlington said local users would “not be happy with.”

Eannarino said commercial trucks are tolled by weight. Heavier trucks increase wear and tear on the bridge.

The only other vocal opposition came from Jamestown resident Rosemary Woodside, who works at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center. “I have a lot of co-workers who have seen their fares increase,” Woodside said. She said these workers pay income tax.

Darlington said that although he sympathized with these workers and everyone who has to pay income tax, it was important for people to know that RITBA does not receive any state or federal funds for the maintenance of the bridges.

“All revenue comes from the tolls,” Darlington said.

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