2011-09-15 / Front Page

RITBA takes hard look at reinstituting Mt. Hope toll

BY TIM RIEL

The Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority at yesterday’s meeting discussed the possibility of reinstituting a toll on Mt. Hope Bridge, a fee that has been defunct since 1998.

According to RITBA Board of Directors Chairman David Darlington, the authority decided to ax the toll on the Mt. Hope Bridge 13 years ago because a report was done that said tolls from the Newport Pell Bridge could support maintenance of both bridges.

“The report said that the Pell Bridge could support maintenance of the Mt. Hope Bridge as long as there were regular increases of tolls on the Pell Bridge,” Darlington said. “What didn’t happen since then is that there have not been any regular increases.”

Along with the absence of regular toll increases, Darlington said that traffic flattening out on the Pell Bridge over the last decade hasn’t helped revenue growth for the RITBA either.

One of the reasons that tolling was eliminated from the Mt. Hope Bridge was because the authority wasn’t earning any revenue from it. “In 1998 there was a decision to take the toll off the Mt. Hope Bridge because cost of personnel to collect the toll equated to the amount we collected,” said Darlington. “We were collecting the toll just to pay people that collect it.” With new technologies, toll collectors are no longer necessary.

The second reason that the authority decided to cancel tolling was because traffic was increasing on the Pell Bridge. “From 1998 to 2001, traffic actually did grow,” Darlington said. “But in 2001, traf- fic flattened out.”

Instead of resorting to a worstcase scenario and upping tolls or reinstituting tolls on the Mt. Hope Bridge after the traffic stopped escalating, the RITBA decided to stand pat with tolling and put some discretionary projects on the shelf in order to weather to storm.

“When we saw that traffic had flattened out, we tried to put off projects we had planned that wouldn’t effect the bridge’s safety because we thought that the economy was going to improve and that the traffic would increase,” Darlington said. “What’s happened subsequently, [the economy] hasn’t gotten better and we still have a flat traffic stream.”

When the authority first suggested that a Mt. Hope toll be reinstated, RITBA went on a dozen or so public hearings to hear feedback from the communities that would be affected most by the change: both Jamestown and Newport on the southern tip of Aquidneck Island, and Bristol and Portsmouth on the northern tip.

“From the public discussions, we learned that Jamestown and Newport residents want to know why we don’t collect revenue from that side and just on their side,” Darlington said, “while Bristol and Portsmouth don’t want anything to do with [the idea of Mt. Hope tolls].”

Darlington said that he told Jamestown and Newport residents that the RITBA would conduct a study on the best ways to increase the revenue stream going to the authority, and the study would include the possibility of a Mt. Hope toll.

He also told Bristol and Portsmouth residents that once the study was concluded, the RITBA wouldn’t make any decisions until first holding another public hearing to discuss its findings.

“All we are doing right now is honoring our commitment to both sets of folks,” Darlington said. “Our intention right now is to go to Bristol and Portsmouth and do a presentation and take their feedback relative to what the pluses and minuses are. We need to have these discussions to know if it is a practical thing to do.”

Darlington and the board voted to take steps to hold a public hearing with the residents. Darlington said that he wants to figure out a location and time and then send out a one-week notice to alert residents of the hearing.

“We don’t want these hearings going on in six months,” he said. “Hopefully in the next three weeks.”

State Department of Transportation Director Michael Lewis, who sits on the RITBA board, said that the authority should draft a onepage description of its intentions. “I think we should think about packaging the issues in a simple way,” he said. “It’s important because there is a lot of erroneous information that needs to be addressed.”

These tolling scenarios have come to the forefront because, according to a letter from Maureen E. Gurghigian, managing director at FirstSouthwest, the authority’s financial advisor, “The authority faces significant additional borrowing needs to fund critical longterm maintenance requirements as outlines in its 10-year renewal and replacement plan.”

The authority – which already has an existing debt service – has a planned $70 million issue in 2012 and another $90 million in future borrowings from 2015 to 2017.

Gurghigian said that the bonds aren’t optional. “The new debt isn’t discretionary. It’s required to maintain the bridges.”

Darlington agreed. “If we don’t issue the bonds, then we can’t maintain the 10-year plan,” he said. “And then we can’t do proper maintenance, and our structures will come into ill-repair. There will be safely issues.”

“It would ultimately become more costly to repair,” said Gurghigian. Added board member Arthur Fletcher, “If we don’t keep maintaining [the Mt. Hope Bridge], it’s going to end up on the bottom of the bay.”

Richard Gobeille of Jacobs Engineering was also on hand to discuss the Pell Bridge tolling prices. He said that the Newport Pell Bridge is actually low compared to the 1969 rate of $2 when inflation is taken into account. “With inflation it should probably be at about $10,” Gobeille said. He also said that the $4 it costs today to cross the Pell Bridge is comparable with other bridges in larger cities, such as the George Washington and Tappen Zee bridges that span the Hudson River in New York.

“It strikes a lot of people that we should be less expensive than these other bridges because they’re in larger cities,” Darlington said. “But do you know how much traffi c and revenue those bridges create?”

Darlintgton continued, “It’s not fair to say, ‘Well it’s $4 to go over our bridge, but it’s only $5 to go over a New York bridge.’ It’s not an accurate comparison because they are generating hundreds of millions of dollars while we are generating $18 million. Our bridges are serving a very low population. The opportunity to generate revenue is so much lower. And that is one of the problems we are having.”

“How you get there is a policy decision,” Gurghigian said about the extra revenue needed. “All we can tell you is what the revenues need to be to make the plan work.”

“Tolls went down in 1998 and tolls went down in 2008,” Darlington said. “Unfortunately, it’s time that we have to move in the other direction.

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