Even before Gov. Lincoln Chafee has a chance to take a position on the idea of putting toll booths on the new Sakonnet River Bridge, local legislators are making it clear how they feel. Legislators have filed bills that would require the bridge to remain in the hands of the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (DOT), which does not have toll collection authority, rather than transfer to the Rhode Island Bridge and Transits Authority, which does have toll collection authority.
Rep. John G. Edwards (D-Dist. 70, Tiverton, Portsmouth) submitted a bill this week to prohibit tolls on the bridge and keep the DOT its owner. He calls implementing toll booths “short sighted” and argues it will unfairly increase day-to-day travel costs for Newport County residents.
“I have received an overwhelming number of calls against this toll,” Edwards said. “If this goes through, it will cripple the tourism. They might as well cede Tiverton and Little Compton to Massachusetts completely.”
When former Gov. Donald Carcieri presented his budget last year, an article contained within stated the bridge would be placed under the turnpike and bridge’s management, which can place a toll booth on the Sakonnet River Bridge. The authority managers the toll collection system at the Newport Bridge.
Beams and steel girders have been laid and bolted over the last several weeks, as RIDOT’s $163.7 million project to replace the existing Sakonnet River Bridge is on schedule for a spring 2012 completion.
Edwards' bill was heard on Wednesday night before the House Finance Committee, and it was continued for further study.
“This toll will push more traffic onto the Mt. Hope Bridge and will curtail tourist traffic to Newport from Boston and the north,” Edwards said.
The Pell Bridge in Newport has a $2-per-axle toll, which is the same fee Carcieri proposed for the Sakonnet River Bridge.
DOT Director Michael P. Lewis submitted a letter to the House Finance Committee, citing June 2010 legislation that was approved to form a 12-member commission to seek sustainable transportation funding. It has a year to present its findings.
The director states that with the vague situation on federal government funding, particularly the national highway trust fund, the study group should consider every option to bring money into state coffers. Not directly promoting tolls on the bridge in his letter, Lewis said the commission should first submit its report in order to fully approach Rhode Island’s transportation infrastructure issues.
Edwards suggested putting tolls on Interstate 95 in Pawtucket and Westerly as an alternative.
His bill is co-sponsored by Rep. Dan Gordon (R-Dist. 71, Tiverton, Portsmouth, Little Compton), Rep. Daniel P. Reilly (R-Dist. 72, Portsmouth, Middletown, Newport) and Rep. Raymond E. Gallison, Jr. (D-Dist. 69, Bristol, Portsmouth.)
“The people on Aquidneck Island should not be punished via tolls due to a lack of foresight and entire planning to pay for and maintain this bridges ahead of time,” said Rep. Gordon, who also opposes tolls on the Mt. Hope Bridge.
Similar legislation has been presented by State Sen. Walter S. Felag Jr. (D. Dist-10, Warren, Tiverton, Bristol), which is co-sponored by Sen. Louis DiPalma (D-Dist. 12, Little Compton, Middletown, Newport, Tiverton) and Sen. Christopher Ottiano (R-Dist. 11, Bristol, Portsmouth).
“Why?” asked Felag. “We pay enough taxes in East Bay, and we already have a bridge, the Newport Bridge, that is being tolled. The DOT should be maintaining that new Sakonnet Bridge when it’s finally built.”
Felag added that he is interested to see Gov. Chafee’s position on this subject when he presents his state budget on March 8.