Bridge officials discuss tolling options with residents
At two sparsely attended workshops Saturday inside the Roger Williams University Baypoint Inn in Portsmouth, RITBA officials unveiled the payment options, while several protestors held signs bearing the message “No tolls” outside.
Jeanne Smith of Middletown and Sally Black of Tiverton urged people who oppose the tolls to attend a State House hearing April 25 on a measure to stop the bridge transfer and the tolls. State Rep. Dennis Canario, who represents the East Bay communities of Tiverton and Little Compton, stood with the toll opponents at the afternoon workshop. Other lawmakers attended the morning workshop.
The payment options are based on a study by Jacobs Engineering. Darlington said the consulting firm offered three scenarios for tolling the Sakonnet span.
For Rhode Island residents using an E-ZPass transponder, the options were 75 cents, 83 cents and $1.60, with a maximum charge of one round-trip payment per day, good for any number of crossings.
With an out-of-state E-ZPass, motorists could pay $1.60, $3.75 or $4 to use the bridge. However, non-Rhode Island drivers also would pay an additional $1.50 for a video surcharge if they didn’t have any transponder at all.
Darlington also anticipates the out-of-state motorists will be able to apply for a Rhode Island E-Z Pass to get the preferred rate.
The bridge authority is studying the option to allow mainly Massachusetts drivers to qualify for in-state rates to minimize the economic impact of tolling the Sakonnet River Bridge. Many East Bay residents have complained the tolls will destroy businesses that rely on customers coming in from the Bay State. However, Darlington said the accommodation would cost $3 million in revenues.
He also said the authority is studying a way to ease the impact on Tiverton’s school budget, since the town buses children to the Portsmouth schools.
“There’s a whole lot of discount options,” he said. “One of the concerns raised this morning focused on multiple trips a day.”
Darlington stressed Rhode Island residents will only pay for one-round trip per day.
Meanwhile, the tolls on the Newport Pell Bridge would remain the same, with the resident E-ZPass holders paying 83 cents per crossing versus $4 for all others.
Jacobs Engineering’s study also projected increases on the Newport Pell Bridge to rise to $4.50 in 10 years.
RITBA organized the two workshops to give the public a chance to discuss possible toll prices and E-ZPass discount packages, Darlington said.
“The authority decided to do this,” he said. The state Department of Transportation already held two public hearings to ex- plain why the tolls are a necessity.
Now, Darlington said, it’s up to the bridge authority to set toll rates and choose the structure. At the workshop, RITBA officials hoped to have informal conversations with residents concerning the options.
“We hope to get a better dialog with the public and more exchanging information back and forth,” Darlington said. “Our main focus is to get feedback from folks about the impact of these decisions on their everyday life and mitigate them.”
The bridge authority has to raise revenues, but that doesn’t “mean we intend to cause all kinds of havoc,” he said. “There’s a balance.”
Most people attending the workshops preferred the plan to give residents the 75-cent rate and collect $3.75 from nonresidents. Karin Murray of Jamestown attended the workshop and told Darlington she favors putting the tolls back on the Mount Hope Bridge and increasing them to cover the maintenance costs.
“Users should pay a toll for the maintenance of the Mount Hope Bridge just as the Pell Bridge users pay a toll to maintain the Pell Bridge,” she said.
According to Darlington, the tolls, which have sparked loud opposition from East Bay residents, are not a done deal.
The Federal Highway Administration must still approve the transfer of two bridges – the Sakonnet River and the Jamestown Verrazzano – from the state Department of Transportation to RITBA.
The state General Assembly authorized the transfer last year and federal review would not delve into questions about policy. According to Darlington, the review merely assesses whether the proper procedures were followed. He said the U.S. agency will verify if certain necessary studies were completed.
He compared the review to checking “off the boxes.”
The bridge authority does have to wait for federal approval, however, before moving ahead with tolls.
“As far as the transfer, that doesn’t mean they can’t come back with recommendations,” said Darlington. “We can’t control that timeline, but authority officials want to be in a position to make minor adjustments, based on [federal] review.”
Darlington said RITBA plans to roll out tolls by early July and will forge ahead to put the system in place. If the state did nothing until the Federal Highway Administration handed down its decision, Darlington said there would be criticism.
The next steps are to install the necessary software and physical structures. He compared the tolling on the Sakonnet span to driving under a sign. He said there would be no tollbooths, no collectors and no slowing down.
The toll money goes to maintain the bridges. Darlington said most people understand the bridges are standing in salt water, which corrodes steel.
“If you let the decay get to a certain point, the death of the bridge is inevitable,” he said.
The Mount Hope Bridge was built in 1929 for $2 million.
“We’ve maintained it since 1955, and that bride will last into perpetuity,” said Darlington. “The Sakonnet River Bridge was built and replaced in 52 years because of the lack of maintenance.”
The bridge couldn’t be saved, and it cost $200 million to build the replacement, which opened for traffic in September.