During a public hearing at Portsmouth High School Thursday evening, residents weighed-in on a proposal by the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority to re-introduce tolls to the Mount Hope Bridge. The tolls are being considered to help cover a $63 million shortage of money needed to maintain the Mount Hope and Newport Pell bridges for the next decade.
The alternative solution would be to raise the toll rates at the Pell Bridge.
State Sen. Christopher S. Ottiano (R-Dist. 11, Bristol, Portsmouth), who attended the hearing, said he is opposed to the Mount Hope Bridge toll.
“We all use all of these bridges,” Ottiano said. The idea that someone in one town uses something and someone else is paying for it, is a-la-carte taxation.”
Since tolls were removed from the Mount Hope Bridge in 1998, all maintenance has been funded by tolls from the Newport Pell Bridge.
Ottiano said the problem of the budget shortfall is real and accurate, but the issue needs a big-picture solution. He said he supports the alternative option to generate money – the 17 to 22 percent toll increase in Newport.
Authority chairman David A. Darlington pointed out that the rates for either option might have to be adjusted every three years, which could impose more increases in the future.
“This is clearly a residential bridge,” said Ottiano in reference to the study that estimated 70 percent of people use the bridge more than four times per week. “This is the small business of the people. People going to work, seeing their family,” he said.
State Rep. Raymond E. Gallison Jr. (Democrat- District 69, Bristol, Portsmouth) reiterated the senator’s concerns at the hearing.
“This is a local bridge,” said Gallison. He proposed that an increase to the gas tax could fund the capital improvement projects.
Stephen Clark, a resident from Tiverton, said if the state raises the gas tax, it would not go toward bridge repairs.
“Every time the taxes go up, we pay for it. Where does the money go?” he asked the audience. “To the general fund.”
Clark said he did not understand why the removed the tolls 13 years ago. He believes they should have increased the toll from 10 cents to 25 cents in order to generate approximately $1 million more in revenue each year.
“What I would like to know is why there aren’t tolls somewhere else,” said Clark. “Why isn’t there a toll on 95? Why isn’t there a toll on 295? Why isn’t there a toll on the Washington Bridge? Why isn’t there one on 24?”
Clark said that he expects the politicians to fight to put in a more comprehensive solution for Rhode Island’s bridges.
“The other thing that scares me is they talk about turning this bridge over to DOT,” said Clark. “You give that to DOT, five years it will be sitting in the river.”
Bruce Livingston, a resident from Jamestown, said his family already has a substantial toll bill every month, since they go to Newport for church, the hospital and daily errands.
“We don’t mind for one second that a good part of that goes to help our friends up here with the Mount Hope Bridge,” said Livingston at the hearing. “But we feel that, folks … come on aboard, help us out. We have been paying for it since it started.”
Donald Richardson, a resident from Jamestown, said that he resents that he had to pay a higher toll so people on the Mount Hope Bridge can ride for free.
“We have to go to Newport, just like the people on Mount Hope,” he said. “I don’t see why we should have to pay for the maintenance on the Mount Hope Bridge so the people in Bristol and Warren ride for free.”
John King, vice president of student affairs at Roger Williams University, said the Mount Hope Bridge toll would introduce a substantial tax on their education for non-resident students. He said the toll might also deter the students who live in Bristol from going to Portsmouth.
King said he also supported a big-picture view on the issue, that would include a look at all the Rhode Island bridges.
Joe Sousa, a resident from Tiverton, agreed.
“It’s time to consolidate a little bit,” said Sousa. He suggested the state take back ownership and responsibility of the two bridges.
“We need to make more noise,” Sousa said. “We don’t have a revenue problem, we have a spending problem,” he said.
After the meeting, Newport Mayor Stephen C. Waluk said that he supports the re-introduction of the tolls to Mount Hope.
"It makes no sense for the users of the Pell Bridge to subsidize maintenance and repairs on Mount Hope," Waluk said.