2012-02-23 / News

Bristol-Warren representative introduces bill to eliminate RITBA

Jamestown delegation says they oppose Rep. Richard Morrison’s legislation

State Rep. Richard P. Morrison, who represents Bristol and Warren, introduced legislation Feb. 15 to dissolve the state Turnpike and Bridge Authority, which would transfer control of the Newport and Mount Hope bridges under the purview of the Department of Transportation.

But Jamestown’s legislative delegation doesn’t think the proposal is warranted and doubts that the bill could even get off the ground. “He’s not the first one to put that bill in,” said Rep. Deb Ruggiero. “The Turnpike and Bridge Authority does a very good job maintaining those bridges and keeping them safe. I don’t know if that bill would even see the light of day. A lot of them don’t, thankfully. The DOT has enough to worry about with the roads.”

Morrison introduced his bill less than a week after the authority announced that it would raise tolls on the Newport Bridge effective July 1. Although the toll increase is widely opposed by Rhode Island residents – especially those in Newport and Jamestown – the authority hopes that it doesn’t have to come to that.

Governor Lincoln Chafee currently has in his budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year a plan to transfer the Sakonnet and Jamestown bridges to the RITBA. This would allow the authority to toll traffic on the Sakonnet Bridge, which DOT Director Michael Lewis says is 40 percent out of state. If this proposal were passed, the Newport Bridge increases would automatically be rescinded.

Ruggiero said that she supports the governor’s plan to transfer control of the two bridges to the authority, giving it jurisdiction of four bridges. “We cannot raise the tolls on the Newport Bridge, especially with everyone coming this summer for the Tall Ships and the America’s Cup,” she said. “We have to protect the tourism and hospitality industries.”

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Morrison, there was a need for the turnpike authority in 1954 when it was created, but there is no reason for it today. He said it doesn’t make sense that the DOT should maintain every road and span in the state expect for the Newport and Mount Hope bridges.

“I am not aware of any compelling reason for the authority to continue to exist now, when the authority is responsible for only two bridges and when it makes much more sense to have bridges, like all other roads in the state, under the control and operation of the DOT,” he said.

Morrison’s bill was co-sponsored by East Bay Reps. Raymond Gallison and Jan Malik. It has been referred to the House Committee of Finance, where it currently sits.

“The Turnpike and Bridge Authority is just, in my opinion, another layer of government that doesn’t need to exist, and especially since, as a quasi-public agency, it is not directly answerable to the citizens of the state,” Morrison said.

“I don’t support Morrison’s proposal,”

Sen. Teresa Paiva Weed said. “As of right now, I’m keeping an open mind until we see all the studies.”

Paiva Weed added that she doesn’t want to see any toll increases on the Newport Bridge, and also doesn’t want to see a Mount Hope toll reinstituted because of the collaboration of human services between East Bay communities.

David Darlington, chairman of the board of directors for the authority, said that this isn’t the first time he has come across legislation trying to dissolve the RITBA.

“Every time we look for additional revenue or talk about increasing tolls, there are people who look at different options, and we respect that,” he said. “We don’t block anybody from thinking out of box.”

The turnpike authority has more than 60 employees, including 23 full-time toll collectors, five full-time officer workers and five full-time maintenance personnel. There are also about 30 part-time employees. Darlington said that there is a misconception that RITBA workers are state employees, and therefore taxpayers are liable for their salaries, benefits and pensions. He added that no federal and state taxes have ever gone to the authority and it is entirely funded by tolls.

“Those bridges are public assets,” Darlington said. “We are simply custodians of them. And we think we serve a purpose and do a good job for the public.”

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