East Bay residents up in arms
East Bay residents are livid about the plan to toll the Sakonnet River Bridge. About 600 people – mostly from Portsmouth, Tiverton and Middletown – crowded into the Portsmouth High School audito rium and cafeteria Monday night and left no doubt where they stood about being asked to pay to cross the new bridge.
Their message to Michael Lewis, head of the state Department of Transportation, was unanimous. It boiled down to two words: “No tolls.”
The auditorium, which has a capacity of 500, was packed, and an overflow audience, comprising about 100 more people, watched from the school cafeteria on big screen televisions.
The forum started late, while Portsmouth police officers directed the overflow to the school cafeteria.
Many in the crowd held signs and waved to television reporters, who were on the lookout for locals to interview. Before the workshop started, Joe Sousa of Tiverton worked the room looking for people who wanted to sign a petition against tolls. Sousa said he had more than 27,000 signatures on the petition, which had been left at stores and businesses.
“It might make a difference to Chafee if he wants to get re-elected,” Sousa said.
Lewis and Rick Gobeille, consultant for Jacobs Engineering, spoke for about an hour to explain why the tolls were on the table to maintain the Newport, Mount Hope, Sakonnet River and Jamestown bridges.
But the audience was restless and said they were taking up too much time.
Gobeille had started to explain the Sakonnet River Bridge will have all-electronic toll when a member of the audience told him to stop talking.
“You’re done,” the man said.
Gobeille said Lewis had asked him to give a presentation.
“OK, I’m going to continue,” Gobeille said, and went on to show slides of data.
“Next,” some people yelled.
Gobeille tried to explain how the consultants determine the amount people are willing to pay in tolls.
“Zero,” several people in the audience shouted back.
At 7:58 p.m., the presentations ended, and Lewis assured everyone officials would stay until everyone who wanted to speak had an opportunity.
Many of the residents stayed in the auditorium for the entire four hours to make a point and express their outrage.
“Get the damn lawyer,” Karen Gleason of Portsmouth told the crowd. “It’s discrimination.”
Gleason said she had not minded paying the 10-cent toll that used to be on the Mount Hope Bridge, but she objected to tolling the Sakonnet span. She said that the workshop was being held after the state had already come to the decision to go forward with the tolls.
She might not pay, she said.
“I am going to take down my transponder when the tolls go up and let them find me,” she said. She suggested that finding her could take authorities some time “if 27,000 other people are doing it with me.”
Komes Rozes, owner of Flo’s Clam Shack in Middletown, said people would not drive down from Massachusetts for clam cakes and pay $8 for tolls. He estimated he would lose $250,000 in business next summer if the tolls go into effect.
“That’s a lot of clams,” he said. Rozes added that the toll seems silly on a bridge so short it’s “really a causeway.”
William Clark, Portsmouth’s director of business development, said the toll would hurt business and create a barrier between Aquidneck Island and southeastern Massachusetts. He predicted local businesses would leave rather than pay the toll. He also said the toll seemed absurd for a bridge this short. “You’re off it almost before you know you’re on it,” he said.
Lewis, who was shouted down a couple of times during the meeting, said the public comment period would stay open until the end of December. Ultimately, the Federal Highway Administration will review all the public input, he said, and make a decision about whether more study and public outreach is necessary.
Lewis said if the FHA agrees to the tolls, the system could be in place by next spring or summer.
“Why is this even being discussed?” he asked. Lewis went on to explain that the fiscal year 2013 state budget “included an article authorizing transfer of the new Sakonnet and Jamestown bridges to the Turnpike and Bridge Authority with intent of introducing tolls to pay for maintenance on all four bridges.”
Lewis said the legislature’s plan was to transfer the Sakonnet and Jamestown bridges to the RITBA and “create a four-bridge system” with dedicated revenues to pay for costs. Those revenues would come from tolling the Newport and Sakonnet River spans.
Lewis said the turnpike authority has a 10-year capital plan to cover painting and maintenance on the bridges, but is facing a $60 million shortfall. He said alternatives to the bridge tolls are being pursued, including an option to toll Interstate 95. But current federal law would have to be changed to allow the state to install tolls on the highway, he said.
Although no Jamestown residents came forward to speak, people who did not attend the workshops Monday in Portsmouth and Tuesday in Tiverton will still have time to submit comments in writing. The information is available at email@example.com or by calling 222-2450.