Authority raises tolls on Newport Bridge effective July 1
The Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority voted yesterday to raise tolls on the Newport Pell Bridge and to submit proposed legislation to the state General Assembly asking for permission to set tolls on the Mount Hope Bridge – but the RITBA is hoping that it doesn’t have to come to that.
The resolution passed on Feb. 8 also stated that if the state can provide an “alternative and suffi- cient source of revenue,” the newly proposed toll rates would “not be implemented and the existing toll structure shall be maintained.”
The authority is hoping for the option that is highlighted in Governor Lincoln Chafee’s budget proposal: for the RITBA to take control of the Sakonnet River and Jamestown Verrazano bridges. Chafee’s suggestions would include instituting a toll on the Sakonnet Bridge.
“The proposal would give us two more assets, but provide one of them that would be able to provide revenue,” said David Darlington, chairman of the authority’s board of directors.
The RITBA met last month with the intention of deciding how it would finance its 10-year plan, but the board voted to table the discussion on the recommendation from state Director of Transportation Director Michael Lewis. Lewis said that he wanted a few more weeks to discuss other options with Governor Chafee before the authority voted on toll increases, although he didn’t make it clear at the time what those changes would be.
“It was very prudent of [Lewis] to ask us to wait,” said Darlington. “This was all done very well.”
“[Cost for infrastructure maintenance] is a big problem in Rhode Island and a big problem nationally,” said Lewis. “We have to look for ways to fund and finance transportation to ensure we have a sound transportation system.”
Lewis said there is so much transportation infrastructure in Rhode Island, that if a road were to be built from “here to San Francisco,” every three miles there would be a bridge. “That’s how much infrastructure we have,” said Lewis.
If the RITBA were given ownership of the Sakonnet and Jamestown bridges, the authority would be responsible for nearly 20 percent of that total infrastructure.
Darlington said that there were “very unique” features in the governor’s proposal, but it would be beneficial to East Bay residents because the potential money made from Sakonnet Bridge tolls would be used entirely to maintain the four bridges.
“We have to collect,” he said. “We don’t get state or federal taxes.”
Lewis added that the Sakonnet Bridge is bought and paid for, and soon the weight restriction will be lifted. “The money will only be used for future maintenance,” he said, “to keep the bridges in a state of good repair.”
Lewis added that because the Sakonnet was built with federal dollars, the authority has no legal choice but to use any revenue from it for highway and bridge infrastructure.
Aside from Darlington and Lewis, the only board member to offer comments on the situation was Stephen Waluk. Waluk said that the board shouldn’t make any decisions on upping the toll on the Newport Bridge until the other options – the governor’s proposal to expand RITBA’s jurisdiction and legislative approval for the authority to set tolls on the Mount Hope Bridge – pan out.
“It seems like we’re moving be- fore we have to,” said Waluk. “As a body we don’t need to make a decision today to raise tolls on the [Newport] Bridge.”
Darlington countered Waluk’s sentiment by saying that the authority has a $68 million bond on the table that they have to put out this summer. By passing the resolution to raise tolls on the Newport Bridge, Darlington said that they are showing the lenders that they have a back-up plan if the other options aren’t approved. He added that it’s important to be able to show that the authority has a structure in place to pay for the bonds.
“The timing on when a budget item is heard in the General Assembly is in the last days of the assembly in late June,” said Darlington. “The budget is taken up and its passed, and then the General Assembly quickly vacates the premises.”
For that reason, Darlington said he wants to be prepared. “I don’t want to leave this off the table, and then come late June, when we see the [budget] outcome, we have to scramble and potentially affect our credit rating if we’re not prepared when the time comes,” he said.
If both the governor’s proposal and the authority’s request to set tolls on the Mount Hope fail, then increased tolls on the Newport Bridge will take effect July 1. The new tolls will be:
• Rhode Island resident E-ZPass users will increase from 83 cents to $1.
• Cash rate will increase from $4 to $5.
• E-ZPass 30-unlimited plan will increase from $40 to $48.
• E-Zpass six-trip plan will increase from $5.46 to $6.
• Out-of-state E-ZPass users will increase from $4 to $5.
• Trucks per axel will increase from $2 to $2.75.
“The two bridges in our care require significant repair and maintenance work to ensure that they remain safe,” said Darlington. “We believe it’s important to allow drivers impacted by the new rates a sufficient amount of time to plan their budgets for the new toll structure.”
“Very rarely do you see someone raise a tax or toll and then see it come back,” said Waluk.
“I’m a Rhode Islander and have a healthy skepticism that if any item goes up, that it will ever go down,” said Darlington. “But if this passes, it will automatically be rescinded.”
“I want to be clear,” said Lewis, “that the governor’s proposal is the better path.”