2012-06-21 / Front Page

No toll increases on Pell Bridge

Governor’s budget nullifies turnpike authority’s vote
BY TIM RIEL

The increased toll on the Newport Bridge that was expected to take effect July 1 is no longer a threat to Conanicut Island residents. Gov. Lincoln Chafee on Friday enacted the state’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year, and with his signature came the nullifi cation of a vote taken this winter by the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority to raise the fee.

“As a result of the budget being signed into law, RITBA will hold the price of the toll to current rates,” said David Darlington, chairman of the turnpike authority. “We made that promise in our February vote, which was taken after a months-long period of public scrutiny of our financial and longrange bridge-maintenance plans.”

Chafee’s budget – which was approved by the House on June 8 and the Senate on June 11 – now transfers control of the Sakonnet River Bridge and the Jamestown Bridge from the state Department of Transportation to RITBA. With the new structures now falling under the authority’s jurisdiction, along with the fee remaining the same on the Newport Bridge, no tolls will be instituted on the authority’s fourth span, the Mount Hope Bridge.

After extensive debates between state legislators, RITBA board members and the public, the turnpike authority voted during its February meeting to raise the toll on the Newport Bridge so it would be able to finance its 10-year plan. The proposed increase was to raise the E-ZPass rate from 83 cents to $1, and the cash rate from $4 to $5.

At the time of the vote, officials at the turnpike authority were hoping that one of the other two options on the table would pan out before the board was compelled to impose another increase on the Newport Bridge. The problem was, the other two options relied on lawmakers in Providence and it was out of the turnpike authority’s hands.

One of the other options was to reinstitute a fine on the Mount Hope Bridge, which needed approval from the General Assembly, and which brought much dissent from East Bay residents. The reason that the authority needed lawmakers’ approval is because RITBA only has the power to restore the toll at the 1960 rates, which is when the toll on the Mount Hope Bridge was repealed. The 1960 rates were 10 cents for residents, 35 cents for nonresidents. Legislation had to be passed in the General Assembly to remove the 1960 restrictions so the turnpike authority could set new ones.

The second option was Chafee’s budget proposal, which called for RITBA to take control of the Jamestown and Sakonnet River bridges. This would allow the authority to toll the Sakonnet River Bridge. RITBA and Transportation Director Michael Lewis believed this to be the better route to take because many more Massachusetts residents use the newly built Sakonnet River Bridge than the Newport or Mount Hope spans, putting the burden on out-of-state drivers.

Darlington said that the toll collection system on the Sakonnet River Bridge will be similar to the new open-road-tolling system that is about to make its debut on the Newport Bridge. Beginning later this month, drivers going through the Newport toll plaza with EZPass transponders will be able use E-ZPass-only lanes, which will allow them to go through without slowing down. (Turn to Page 14 for more on open-road tolling.)

For the Sakonnet River Bridge, an all-electronic system is being contemplated. Cameras mounted on the toll plaza will take photos of license plates, and motorists who pay cash would instead receive invoices in the mail for their outstanding tolls. The Newport system still forces cash-paying motorists to slow down and pay a toll collector.

“Open-road tolling on the Newport Bridge will help reduce waiting times in the cash lanes and is faster and more convenient overall,” said Darlington.

The turnpike authority receives no state or federal money. RITBA – now in charge of maintenance and operations on four bridges – is funded entirely on toll revenue.

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