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The Toll Saga: A History

Portsmouth Economic Development Chairman Ray Berberick paints a picture of the toll saga from years ago to today.

By Ray Berberick

This saga involves massive amounts of information.  The history of the deterioration of the Old Sakonnet River Bridge and when the real decision was made that it was uneconomically reparable is part of history that is not well known. 

And how that played into the removal of the toll on the Mount Hope Bridge in 1999 is another curious chapter. 

Then there was the original paperwork by RIDOT in 2001 to do the Notice of Intent (NOI) to build a new bridge in accordance with the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) standards.  This led to the subsequent Environmental Impact Statement) EIS process leading to the 2003 (Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) in April 2003 and Record of Decision ROD to build a new bridge. 

During this process, Governor Carcieri heard the people and declared there would be no toll on the Sakonnet.    But the undercurrent thought on how to ultimately pay for the bridge was not well known to the public.  Garvee bonds were the solution at the time. 

The 2008 Blue Ribbon Panel Study was the first real public trial balloon where tolls on the Sakonnet were presented as an option to pay for a deteriorating infrastructure.  Again, the general public did not have a working knowledge of the behind the scenes information and discussion on how to raise funds for infrastructure.

The Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority (RITBA), based on work by Jacobs Engineering made an attempt to put tolls back on the Mount Hope.  This was met with massive resistance.

Again, somewhat available to the public, but mostly unknown was the amount of debt that RIDOT and RITBA had incurred to deal with the infrastructure.  It was at the December 3rd and 4th, 2012 meetings in Portsmouth and Tiverton, that the famous RIDOT “bucket charts” became known and the key point was RIDOT was paying $97 million dollars a year in debt service to do their job.

A little known point was that Governor Carcieri asked the General Assembly for legislation to put a toll on the Sakonnet in his FY 2011 Budget to the General Assembly in February of 2010.   It was only six weeks after that, that RITBA got a $50 million dollar bond issue to do maintenance on the Pell and Mount Hope.

Not long after that, First Southwest, the bond advisor to RITBA, sent them a letter that they were concerned about the revenue stream to cover the debt service. 

It was after that when the General Assembly received the FY2013 budget in March of 2012 when the infamous Article 20 of the FY 2013 Budget introduced the concept of the East Bay Infrastructure Fund and the transfer of the Sakonnet and Mount Hope Bridges to RITBA.  The language allowed RITBA the ability to place tolls if needed.  Of course it was needed.  But it was like grabbing smoke.  And the people could not react until the budget actually passed in June of 2012. 

That is what fomented the anti-toll effort.  15 different groups helped to form the Sakonnet Tolls Opposition Platform (STOP) along with a number of Facebook page groups like No Tolls on the Sakonnet, Voters Against the Sakonnet Tolls, and Voters Against the Tolls on the Sakonnet along with a web site www.donttoll.com.

The first public exchange of information hosted by the Portsmouth Business Association occurred at Scampi’s Restaurant on September 22, 2012 with several East Bay legislators present, RIDOT Director Lewis and many anti-toll advocates.    It was a civilized, frank and productive session.

Subsequent to that were the two meetings at Portsmouth and Tiverton on December 3rd and 4th of 2012 where RIDOT received massive feedback from hundreds of East Bay residents. 

Meetings with the Governor, Senator Paiva-Weed, and the Federal Delegation followed.  The anti-toll groups did massive research and responded to the “re-evaluation” of the 2003 FEIS.  It was these actions that led to the tri-town effort to file suit in Federal court.  The three towns were Portsmouth, Tiverton and Bristol.

East Bay Legislators first introduced legislation to nullify Article 20 of the FY 2012 Budget in the early months of the 2013 General Assembly.   This spawned two bills which advocated giving even more bridges to RITBA and the introduction of the concept that we have a statewide infrastructure problem. 

Additional work by the anti-toll groups and STOP introduced the information that the region would endure disastrous business economic affects and also that the state could stand to lose as much in tax revenue as the tolls would bring in.   This was “heard” by East Bay legislators and key members of the General Assembly. 

The discussion of Sakonnet tolls parlayed into the June 2013 and early July 2013 budget discussions which resulted in the 11th hour “bait and switch” and the subsequent 10 cent trailer bill along with the creation of the Infrastructure Commission.

The work of the Infrastructure Commission led to the discovery of the real, bigger problem of the condition of the infrastructure in the State were we learned that the state had 700 some odd bridges by federal definition and 1100 total bridges of which 600 some odd were structurally deficient. 

This begat the idea that it was time to address a state wide problem with a state wide solution.  But one nagging issue prevailed.  It was the prospect that the tolls on the Pell may have to go up if there was no toll on the Sakonnet and no other action was taken to alleviate the budget problem that RITBA would bear with four bridges.

This led to the creation of S 2335 and H 7432, the current “Infrastructure Bills.”  The final details of these bills are being negotiated as we speak.   At this time, it appears that RITBA will have the Pell and the Jamestown Bridges and keep the Pell toll at its’ current level.  The Sakonnet and Mount Hope Bridges will go back to RIDOT.  There will be no DMV fee increases.  The State will create a dedicated Infrastructure Fund and fund it with $800 million over the next ten years.  The GA has the ability to issue GO bonds in the event there is a funding shortfall. 

Credit is due to Senator Paiva-Weed and Speaker Mattiello for their courage and vision to get us to this point.   

Credit is due to Senator Daponte and Representative Gallison for their efforts as respective chairs of their Finance Committees. 

Credit is due to Senator DiPalma, Senator Ottiano and Representative Edwards as the principle architects of S 2335 Sub A and H 7432.

Credit is due to the East Bay Newspapers and the Newport Daily News, their editors and reporters for keeping this issue on the front burner as well as the Fall River Gazette. 

And credit is due to countless individuals for engaging the East Bay Legislators in a two year dialogue to address the negative effects that a toll on the Sakonnet would have and for having the perseverance to translate one toll into a statewide solution to a statewide problem.

Now all we need is Jim Garman to write a definitive history.

Ray Berberick is a Portsmouth resident and the chairman of the Portsmouth Economic Development Committee. 

B/STOCK May 10, 2014 at 02:12 PM
The article states " The State will create a dedicated Infrastructure Fund and fund it with $800 million over the next ten years. The GA has the ability to issue GO bonds in the event there is a funding shortfall". OK, where is the state going to get the $800 million? Not a clue. We borrowed money to build the bridge and we have no plan to fund repairs except possibly borrowing the money in the form of General Obligation bonds. Suppose you or I went to a bank and wanted a loan and told the bank we would pay them back but have no plan or funds but if all else fails we will borrow from another bank to pay them off. We would be laughed out the door. That’s one of the reason the state is last in almost everything. No plan. Promise things with no way to fund them. Live for today! Let's just eat this toll and not kick the can down the road. The infrastructure is in place and if we stick with the status quo the interest on the money the state borrow's will cost us more than the toll in the long run. Also, please give some hard thought about your vote on election day. Don't let a politician buy your vote for .50 cents. This state being last is getting really old.
Ray Berberick May 10, 2014 at 03:09 PM
The bills create a restricted receipt account. That account is funded by small and gradual additions. The funds start with a 0.25% reduction in state appropriations. Other funds come from RICAP, the gasoline tax and uninsured motorist’s data base fund. In the out years, as debt service has been retired, these funds will go into the transportation restricted receipt account. It may change slightly between now and the end of the session as the GA works this into the future budgets. Here is a link to S 2335 Sub A. http://webserver.rilin.state.ri.us/BillText/BillText14/SenateText14/S2335A.pdf
Ray Berberick May 10, 2014 at 03:14 PM
Here is an analogy. The state has a budget of $8.5 billion dollars. There are 1,050,000 people in the state. That equates to the state spending $7809 per person per year. The funds to be raised is $800 million over ten years. That is $80 per person per year. So the bills cause the state to spend $80 per person per year (from the $7809 per person per year) on infrastructure. Or try this analogy: It is like moving money you spend on cable, cell phones, pizza, restaurants and movies to fix the roof.
William F Horan May 10, 2014 at 06:02 PM
Good over view but missing the impotent point that the Sakonnet River Bridge had a shortened life due to poor and actually postpones & even cancelled maintenance cycles. One that comes to mind is pulling the money for Airport terminal expansion et al. Hence part of the total picture is a better understanding for all of the management and companion implementation of life cycle maintenance on ALL the bridges and roads in RI. Yes, the tactics and strategies employed for life cycle maintenance of roads and bridges was and is still lacking. What the present discussion / focus has been on is enlarging the so called revenue stream (Smith Hill Speak for ripping off more funds and commingling into the general fund) where it supports the largeness of a totalitarian socialism ever expanding octopus. That is part of this discussion must be what happens to ALL the sources of funds that were collected by government for roads & bridges and what happens to that money along the way (classic RI shrinkage and sharing a taste) . That is unless proven otherwise the majority of funds is co mingled and rebadged with a companion rob Peter to pay Paul mentality. SO again management of the finical revenue stream and management of the actual life cycle maintenance was and is lackikng and I do not see evidence of a unified & integrated plan that identifies and protects tax payer and rate payer monies). We are now climbing the first hill and just over the top I fear is yet another hill looking more like a mountain. Finally lacking a better discipline and transparency I do not see RI getting its hands around this issue. Please keep in mind that the printing press at the fiat debt based FRS and even its computer based digital credit / money will shortly have run its course. Again it will take much more that higher taxes and user fees to resolve this very big problem. Historically here in RI additional funds has generally been squandered by redirection of sizable funds with remaining funds suffering poor management & equally questionable implementation.
Ray Berberick May 10, 2014 at 06:53 PM
@William: Your points came up in the Infrastructure Commission meetings. A lot of the testimony from Mr. Lewis himself painted the right picture. He told the GA what was needed and the GA responded. He himself said that with the $800 million or so, the state would go from worst to first in infrastructure. In 10 years, after all the bridges and state roads were up to snuff, then he would cycle into a proactive maintenance plan which you know is less expensive that what we have been doing. Sure a lot can happen in the next ten years, but we have a very decent solution to a very large problem.

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