If there was one thing clear from Gov. Lincoln Chafee's visit to Portsmouth, small business owners are far from happy.
"Between the toll and the sales tax, you're putting me out of business," said business owner Jeff Phelan to the governor.
Phelan, who owns and operates Leisure Limousine, parked one of his vehicles outside Town Hall with a large "no toll" sign. Phelan wasn't alone. At least a dozen demonstrators held signs and waited for the governor's arrival early Thursday morning.
Chafee held the community forum to hear from local small businesses and to "discuss ways to help them succeed, grow the economy, and create jobs for Rhode Islanders." Instead, Chafee heard from one resident after another, many of them being business owners, about how bridge tolls on the new Sakonnet River Bridge will hurt Aquidneck Island's economy.
"We're tired of being the ATM machine for Providence," said Portsmouth resident Kathleen Melvin to the governor.
"You can't do this to businesses," said Portsmouth Town Councilor Judi Staven. At least one Portsmouth business has moved due to the proposed bridge tolls.
While Gov. Chafee said he understood "there is a lot of anger," he referred most questions to Department of Transportation (DOT) Director Michael Lewis.
"We're doing the best we can," Chafee said. "There is a lot of anger. The economy is bad. I understand. There's a lot of anger out there. Let's just be smart and not let that anger make bad decisions."
Lewis said an environmental impact (including economic) study will be conducted this fall. "The rate of the tolls have an affect on traffic, diversion...What are the economic impacts of tolls on both sides of the river...That will influence how the toll rate is established," he said.
Lewis says there's a need for a permanent revenue stream to maintain bridges.
"If we can't invest in them (the state's other bridges), they will go the way of the Sakonnet River Bridge," he said.
The governor also directed residents to speak with legislators in attendance, including Reps. Dan Gordon, Dan Reilly, John Edwards, Raymond Gallison and Senator Chris Ottiano.
He waved a hand and interrupted when Dennis Canario, who is running for state represenative, began to speak. After the audience yelled, "let him speak," Canario was allowed to voice his opposition to bridge tolls.
Chafee did not allow a last-minute question from Portsmouth Town Councilor Jim Seveney, who is also running for re-election.