2012-01-19 / Front Page

Authority delays vote on Mount Hope tolling

RIDOT director wants more time to discuss other options with governor, legislators
BY TIM RIEL


Steve Hiebner of Wickford stood outside the Jamestown Philomenian Library Wednesday morning with a sign protesting the proposed increase of tolls on the Newport-Pell and Mount Hope bridges. 
PHOTO BY TIM RIEL Steve Hiebner of Wickford stood outside the Jamestown Philomenian Library Wednesday morning with a sign protesting the proposed increase of tolls on the Newport-Pell and Mount Hope bridges. PHOTO BY TIM RIEL The possibility of major changes regarding tolls on the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority’s two structures highlighted the board’s agenda Wednesday, but no vote was taken after the panel opted to delay its decision until its Feb. 8 meeting.

Concerned citizens and network television cameras showed up for the much-anticipated vote on Jan. 18, but state Department of Transportation Director Michael Lewis made a motion to delay any decision on raising or reinstituting tolls. He said that he wanted to discuss other options with Governor Lincoln Chafee first.

“The governor is working with my office and the General Assembly to find ways to reform transportation finances,” Lewis said. “We are looking at comparing strategies to change how we finance transportation in the state. I think there are opportunities here that may be better than what we proposed.”

The two spans that the RITBA is in charge of maintaining are the Newport-Pell Bridge and the Mount Hope Bridge. The changes proposed include raising the local E-ZPass rate on the Newport-Pell Bridge from 83 cents to $1, and increasing by $1 the out-of-state and cash toll from $4 to $5.

“The reason for doing this is to raise capital needed to issue bonds to maintain the structures,” said David Darlington, chairman of the board.

However, increasing tolls on the Newport Bridge was only half of the authority’s proposal. In fact, if everything went as planned, the toll increase on the Newport Bridge would never actually happen – ideally, before the increase would take place on July 1, the RITBA was hoping for permission from the General Assembly to reinstate tolls on the Mount Hope Bridge.

According to Darlington, the board has the power to reinstitute tolls on the Mount Hope Bridge without permission from legislators, but it would only be allowed to restore the 1960 rates. To raise those rates, they would need legislative approval. The rates in 1960, according to Darlington, were 10 cents and 35 cents.

“We want to ask the General Assembly for the ability to set rates on the Mount Hope Bridge,” said Darlington. “The request about the Mount Hope Bridge is to remove the 1960 restrictions so we can set rates there.”

He added, “Then, before July 1, 2012, we could lower the increases on the Pell Bridge and collect revenues from the Mount Hope Bridge.”

But before the board was able to listen to public comments and put the proposal to a vote, Lewis intervened and said that they shouldn’t rush to any decision because he was already in the middle of talks with legislators and the governor about other possibilities. “Those discussions are underway right now,” he said.

“I agree with Lewis,” said Stephen Waluk, who seconded Lewis’ motion. “[Maintaining the bridges] cannot just be on the back of the users of the Newport Bridge, but I think the next proposal we have needs to have equity. I don’t see that on this proposal.”

Since the state doesn’t have the money to replace the bridges, Lewis said that they will have to maintain them. To keep the bridges in safe working condition, he said the authority is about $4 million short per year to pay off bonds needed to maintain the bridges in its 10-year plan.

“The state cannot afford to replace these bridges, so we have to maintain them,” he said. “And I think there are options that are more equitable.”

Before the board officially voted on whether or not it would table the discussion, it opened the floor to public comments.

“First and foremost, thanks to the director and governor for looking at the alternatives,” said the first speaker. “As far as the Mount Hope Bridge, I would be strongly against penalizing Aquidneck Island and Bristol County [residents] by forcing them to pay another toll. Penalizing businesses and people who use the Mount Hope Bridge, I think it’s a mistake. I want to go on the record to say I oppose any tolls on the Mount Hope Bridge.”

Don Richardson of Jamestown disagreed. “I’ve very much opposed to the gentleman who is against the tolls on Mount Hope Bridge,” he said. “Why should we who use the Newport Bridge be penalized and have to pay for the Mount Hope Bridge? And we have been doing this since 1998 at millions of dollars for maintenance of the Mount Hope Bridge.”

Safety issues were also a concern. “Has anyone considered the safety factor?” someone in the crowd asked. “When the tolls were running for a while a long time ago, I grew up in Bristol and I knew of a number of toll booth related accidents because of the narrow corridors.”

Darlington said that safety was a concern, but with new technology, traffic wouldn’t even have to slow down to pay tolls. “There would be an arbor over the road way,” he said. “There is no place to stop. You drive through at regular speed. Logically, there is no change in traffic.”

What if the car doesn’t have a transponder?

“Then the license plate is captured and the toll is mailed,” Darlington said.

Following the agenda item on the tolling, the board recessed for 10 minutes to speak with media members. Darlington and Lewis were both in agreement that although they decided to table the decision, it is still a possibility that the same proposal will be put forward at the Feb. 8 meeting if no other options are found feasible.

Would tolling on the Sakonnet River Bridge come into play?

“No option is off the table,” said Lewis.

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