2011-10-13 / Front Page

Tolling discussions for Mt. Hope Bridge heat up

BY MARGO SULLIVAN

Nobody likes paying bridge tolls. But at a public hearing on Oct. 6 on reinstating Mount Hope Bridge tolls, some islanders said it’s about time motorists who use that bridge paid their fair share for repairs and maintenance, rather than force tolls over the Newport Pell Bridge to go higher.

“I resent paying a higher fee on the Newport Bridge to go to Newport, so people on the Mount Hope Bridge can ride free,” said Jamestowner Don Richardson.

How much higher the Newport Pell Bridge toll would have to go is an open question. Consultant Rick Gobeille estimated the increase would come to 17 percent. But it could go higher.

State Sen. Christopher Scott Ottiano (R-Bristol, Portsmouth) said he would favor a 17 to 22 percent toll hike on the Pell Bridge to avoid a 52-cent toll on drivers traveling the Mount Hope Bridge.

The proposed Mount Hope toll numbers are not firm, but consultants figure the charge could be 52 cents for residents crossing the Mount Hope Bridge, $2.50 for non-residents with E-ZPass, and $3.25 for other passenger cars that had to be billed through the computer. Trucks would pay more.

The state Turnpike and Bridge Authority is considering a Mount Hope Bridge toll to cover a loom- ing $62 million shortfall for capital improvements, Gobeille said.

The anticipated expenses include $49.5 million worth of repairs needed on the Mount Hope Bridge and another $200 million for Newport Bridge upkeep, David Darlington, the R.I. Turnpike and Bridge Authority chairman, said.

The Mount Hope Bridge has been toll free since 1998 because the 10-cent token and 30-cent passenger car charge didn’t generate enough revenue to pay the collection cost. As it stands now, the entire $2.4 million annual expense to keep up the Mount Hope Bridge comes from tolls collected on the Newport Pell Bridge and from bonds, according to Gobeille.

That was the plan the state announced in 1998 when it pulled out the Mount Hope Bridge tollbooth, but the plan has faltered.

Since 1993, Newport Bridge toll revenues have “flattened out,” Gobeille said, partly due to the economy, gas prices and the aging population, which tends to drive less.

Meanwhile, the turnpike authority has few options to raise money. It operates only two bridges and pays its entire $8.9 million operating budget from tolls and bond revenues, Darlington said.

RITBA does plan to issue new bonds, but the agency cannot borrow more money until it raises revenues, according to Maureen Gurghigian of First Southwest, RITBA’s financial consultant. Gurghigian said the process is like applying for a mortgage and by 2013, RITBA will not qualify.

RITBA would need the General Assembly’s approval to increase the Mount Hope Bridge toll, due to current laws which say the toll cannot go above the old cost of 10 cents per token and 30 cents for passenger cars, Darlington said. That money would not justify the cost of installing a new electronic toll collection system, he said.

The system would cost $2.4 million to build, and the agency would also pay an addition $1.3 million for computer software.

The system would overcome some logistical problems, such as lack of room for a toll plaza on the bridge. Instead of a toll plaza, RITBA will construct an arbor over the road leading to the bridge. The arbor will look much like suspended highway signs. It essentially functions as an electronic toll collection system, communicating with E-ZPass transponders and even looking up license plates and sending bills to drivers who don’t use the transponder.

The Mount Hope Bridge tolls could solve the revenue problem over the next three years, according to Gobeille, of Jacobs Engineering Group, the consultants hired to do a 2010 feasibility study on tolling the Mount Hope Bridge. Anticipating some 12,000 daily trips, he estimated a toll would result in $4.6 million in revenues.

Gobeille based his estimates on surveys that showed 72 percent of drivers crossing the Mount Hope Bridge used the bridge at least four times a week. Almost 80 percent of all daily trips start or end in Bristol or Portsmouth. Although traffic increases in summer, overall, locals, rather than tourists, use the Mount Hope Bridge.

More public hearings on the Mount Hope Bridge tolls are to come, Darlington said.

Bruce Livingston of Jamestown told some 60 people attending the hearing in the Portsmouth High auditorium he doesn’t mind paying some costs for the Mount Hope Bridge. But Livingston doesn’t believe the entire burden for Mount Hope should fall on people who travel the Newport Bridge.

“I have three daughters and a wife [and] we all have E-ZPasses,” he said. They pay the toll every time they leave the island, and the money adds up.

“We go into Newport,” he said, and “go to church, go to the hospital and for all kinds of things. We don’t mind one second a good part of that [toll charge] goes to help our friends at the Mount Hope Bridge.”

But the Mount Hope Bridge drivers should also step up, he said.

“Every citizen who rides over the bridge should support that bridge,” he said.

“Folks, come aboard; help us out,” Livingston said. “We’re concerned about you, your safety and your welfare, and we hope you see it the same way.”

Retired Army Col. John Vickers of Portsmouth also said it wasn’t fair to put the burden on Jamestown and Newport residents for the Mount Hope Bridge maintenance.

Vickers said the people who use the bridge should pay for the upkeep. But Ottiano and others argued against tolling the Mount Hope Bridge because of the local impact.

“The bigger picture is, if we’re going to talk about a temporary solution I personally feel the best thing is to go with a percentage increase on the Newport Bridge,” Ottiano said. “The Newport Bridge is in my mind a gateway into the East Bay,” he added, unlike the Mount Hope Bridge, which, he said, “is clearly a residential bridge. This is the small businesses and people going to work,” he said. “This is the people’s bridge. This is the residents’ bridge.”

State Rep. Raymond E. Gallison Jr. (D-Bristol, Portsmouth) suggested a penny gas tax, instead of toll increases.

Also at the public hearing, students and administrators from Roger Williams University objected to the toll plan, arguing it could cost a student $10 a day to commute from Portsmouth to the Bristol campus. Darlington said discounts could be arranged for students who live in Rhode Island during the school year.

Several speakers also suggested tolls on other state highways and bridges to spread the burden, but Darlington said RITBA didn’t have the authority over other structures.

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