No clear-cut winners with Sakonnet tolls
With the state General Assembly recessed and the 2013 session over, there aren’t many people on either side of the Sakonnet River Bridge controversy who are happy with the outcome.
“Somebody much smarter than me once said that it’s a good compromise when no one is happy,” said David Darlington, chairman of the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority.
Lawmakers decided earlier this month that motorists traversing the Sakonnet span will have to fork over a dime for each trip they take across the bridge. The resolution for the minimal toll was made July 2 following heated debates in both chambers of the General Assembly. Ultimately, the Senate and House each approved the legislation comfortably, and the following day it was signed into law by Gov. Lincoln Chafee.
The tax takes effect Aug. 19 and a stipulation limits any increase to the toll until April 2014.
Darlington isn’t sure how much money the bridge authority will collect from tolls under the 10- cent system. He says there are 15 million crossings per year, which would equal $1.5 million if the program lasted a year.
“I certainly don’t think we’ll get that,” he said.
The rate of compliance is the reason for Darlington’s skepticism.
“I have no idea what we will make,” he said. “It’s difficult to try and determine. I don’t know how many people will comply. I don’t know how many people will avoid the toll.”
He says the process of creating an effective tolling system stems from thorough research and planning, something he doesn’t think lawmakers considered.
“As far as I know, the toll is 10 cents for all type of vehicles from any state,” he said. “I don’t think it matters if you’re from Rhode Island or Massachusetts, or if it’s a tractor-trailer or a car.”
In a Providence Journal online poll, 95 percent (3,161 out of 3,343) said a 10-cent toll doesn’t make sense.
The eleventh-hour legislation sparked controversy among legislators, especially East Bay Democrats who have vehemently opposed the tolls since the state’s bridge authority expressed its intention to levy the bridge.
The House of Representatives on June 26 approved an amendment to stall tolling on the new bridge until at least February 2014. The measure called for a special legislation commission to study alternative ways to fund the four bridges operated by the bridge authority. The budget provision also froze the cost to cross the Pell Bridge. It passed easily, 67-4.
However, the new bill that was passed on July 2 as part of the 2014 state budget overrode the June 26 amendment. It passed 40-25 in the House, 29-8 in the Senate.
“Today it’s 10 cents, but tomorrow it could be a $1, $2 or $3, until we’re taxed to death,” said Sen. Walter Felag during Senate deliberations. According to Felag, a Democrat who represents Warren, a toll sends the message, “Stay away. We don’t want your business.”
Jamestown’s delegation was split on the last-minute legislation. Sen. President Teresa Paiva Weed was part of the 29 affirmative votes in the Senate, while Rep. Deb Ruggiero voted with the minority in the House.
“I’m in a difficult position,” said Ruggiero, an island resident. “I represent both Jamestown and Middletown, so I have to try to protect residents in both communities.”
For obvious reasons, Ruggiero indicated most Jamestowners want tolling on the Sakonnet span, while Middletown residents are against the levy.
“What we need is a statewide transportation revenue stream,” she said. “I’m against tolls. I don’t believe in them. I think everyone in Rhode Island should pay to maintain our bridges. Some people in Providence, for example, think that because they don’t use the bridges, they shouldn’t pay for them. That’s not right. Everyone should chip in.”
She added, “We can’t continue to build bridges with federal dollars if we have no way to pay for them.”
At the Senate hearing, Paiva Weed made the unusual decision to step down from her podium to address her colleagues on the Senate floor. She said protecting transportation infrastructure is important to the state’s economy, and tolls are one way to help ensure the economic future of Rhode Island.
“It can be any bridge in this state tomorrow,” she said.
Without tolls, Paiva Weed says there has to be some other way to maintain the state’s bridges. She mentioned alternative methods like raising the emissions tax and more fees on motor vehicles.
Another measure included in the bill was for legislative leaders to appoint members to a commission to study funding for bridge maintenance. Paiva Weed, along with House Speaker Gordon Fox, announced their appointments on July 11. The special commission is made up of Sens. Dan Da Ponte, Louis DiPalma and Chris Ottiano, and Reps. Helio Melo, John Edwards and Antonio Giarrusso.
DiPalma, Ottiano and Edwards all represent East Bay or Aquidneck Island communities.
The nonlegislative members are Michael Lewis and Richard Licht, directors of the state Transportation and Administration departments respectively, and Buddy Croft, director of the bridge authority.
The nine-member commission is expected to meet for six months to find ways to fund the state’s bridges without having to toll communities that rely on bridges that span Narragansett Bay. The legislative panel is required to report its findings to the General Assembly in January 2014.
Edwards, who was named to the commission, is one of the more demonstrative leaders in the crusade against Sakonnet tolls. At a recent Portsmouth Town Council meeting, he said East Bay residents have taken a “bruising,” but lawmakers opposing the toll are still working hard. “We continue to fight,” he said.
With the hullaballoo surrounding the Sakonnet span, Darlington and the bridge authority have been working to get back on track.
The authority originally voted in April to toll E-ZPass motorists 75 cents to cross the Sakonnet River Bridge. (The cost without an E-ZPass was $5.25.) To remove some of the burden on motorists, the authority voted on multiple discounts, including a special promotional price for E-ZPass transponders. Typically $20.95, the authority lowered the price to $10 and added that same amount directly to the E-ZPass account, making the transponder essentially free. Between June 4 and July 10, the bridge authority sold more than 12,000 transponders.
After the General Assembly’s decision to implement its own 10- cent toll on the bridge, the authority ended its discount. The price of a transponder was returned to $20.95 on Saturday.
Other discounts that have been retracted include Rhode Island rates for Massachusetts visitors, and a cap on how many times a driver could get charged daily for crossing the same toll bridge.
“The discount plan that was put together was premised on substantial new revenue,” said Darlington. “We no longer have that money coming in.”