PORTSMOUTH — Officials from the R.I. Turnpike and Bridge Authority (RITBA) came out to explain their side Saturday, but they didn’t win over any of the anti-toll folks.
Instead, RITBA heard more of the same from people like Norman Ajemian of Tiverton, who said a toll on the Sakonnet River Bridge will be a financial burden on people like him as well as local businesses.
“I have to go over it every day,” said Mr. Ajemian. “I work construction and it’s always either on the island or in a lot of cases Charlestown and Westerly, so I go over two bridges on a lot of occasions.”
Two back-to-back workshops, at the Roger Williams University Conference Center, were held to give residents a look at RITBA’s three-option tolling scenario for the bridge.
Many people expressed disappointment there wasn’t a formal presentation by RITBA along with a question-and-answer period. Instead, attendees were led into a large room filled with informational placards set up on easels. Several RITBA officials were on hand to answer questions and residents could also submit written comments or have them recorded by a stenographer.
For many, the setup indicated that for RITBA, the tolls were a done deal.
“It looks like we’re just being dictated to instead of actually having a discussion,” said Mr. Ajemian.
Ray Berberick, chairman of the Portsmouth Economic Development Committee, said the informational nature of the workshops did not surprise him. “(RITBA) has to operate on the premise that the tolls are going in,” he said.
He believes RITBA is nervous, however, that “the anti-toll movement has made it a small possibility” that the tolls may not be put in place.
Mr. Berberick added, “We haven’t been able to find it in writing, but there’s some kind of alleged suspense that if the tolls physically do not go in by Aug. 31 of this year, which is the expected end date of the Cardi contract, then the tolls can never go in.”
Tolls on the Sakonnet River Bridge “are far from a done deal,” said Rep. Dennis M. Canario (D-Dist. 71, Portsmouth, Little Compton and Tiverton).
“We have hearings we’re going to put forth, we have some good bills before the House. On the 25th of April we have the House finance meeting at 1 o’clock, and then we still have the federal government, which this all has to get approved by,” he said.
As for the RITBA workshop, he said, “I think what they have laid out is very informational but the people here have one thought: Tolls of any type is not an option and there should be option four — no tolls.”
Also in attendance was Sen. Walter S. Felag, Jr. (D-Dist. 10, Bristol, Tiverton, Warren). “I believe a toll is a barrier,” he said. “It’s basically telling you to stay away and telling people I represent in Tiverton, but also Little Compton and Southeastern Massachusetts, to stay away from Aquidneck Island. It’s going to be a detriment of the economic vitality of the island itself.”
Funding method questioned
Tracy Anthony, general manager of Clements’ Marketplace, said the anti-toll contingent realizes there are costs associated with the new bridge.
“We’re just arguing the way they want to fund it,” she said. “A small portion of the state has to pay for some of the roadways where there are other things that happen throughout the state and no one community has to pay for that; we all pay as a whole.”
Her business will “definitely” be hurt by a toll, she said.
“Thirty percent of my customers travel over that bridge,” she said. “In a day and age when people will travel miles to save 30 cents on an item, I cannot fathom that anyone would pay a toll both ways to come shop at my store, and the problem is they’ll take their business out of state and so everyone’s going to lose.”
Not only that, about 40 percent of her staff — a large portion of which are part-time workers — use the bridge, she said. “I’ve had people tell me there’s no way they would be able to afford a transponder,” said Ms. Anthony’s who’s afraid of losing workers.
Mr. Ajemian said he feels sorry for people in Island Park. “They’re gonna get wrecked. You think people are going to pay $8 to buy a clam cake,” he said, referring to Flo’s Drive In on Park Avenue.
As for the proposed tolls he was seeing on the boards Saturday, Mr. Ajemian shook his head at RITBA’s numbers, which showed similar costs to pass over the Sakonnet and Newport bridges.
“I think it’s a joke,” he said. “I don’t see how they compare the Sakonnet River Bridge with the Newport Bridge; they’re different. One is five times longer than the other. One is brand new and one is not, but you’re going to pay pretty much the same rates? That just doesn’t wash.”
David Darlington, chairman of the RITBA’s board of directors, said the tolls are necessary because the old model in Rhode Island of relying on an ever-shifting budget to maintain structures doesn’t work.
“It would cost a billion dollars to replace the Newport bridge, another 500 million to replace the Mt. Hope Bridge,” he said. “But there’s no need to replace them because they’ll last forever under proper maintenance. We had to replace the Sakonnet Bridge after 52 years because they just didn’t maintain the bridge.”
The Authority wasn’t there Saturday to debate the need for tolls, however.
“What we can’t do is say it’s free because that’s not our role, he said. “But we can listen to the public and find out what the major impacts are.”
For example, Mr. Darlington said, he lives in North Kingstown and didn’t learn that Little Compton students attend high school in Portsmouth until he heard about that at a recent meeting.
“The buses have to cross back and forth. We went to work to figure how not to charge school buses so they don’t get charged for bringing kids to sporting events at school every day. That’s not our purpose to impact the school budget by having tolls on the bridge,” he said.
One thing that came up at the workshop was a proposed discount to allow out-of-state residents to get a Rhode Island E-ZPass and be charged an in-state rate. “So if there are frequent visitors, say, to a German restaurant in Bristol, they could get a Rhode Island E-ZPass and pay a much lower fee than an out-of-state resident,” Mr. Darlington said.
Mr. Darlington said he understands that nobody wants an extra toll, but the model for using them to pay for bridge maintenance “proves itself.”
“I live in Rhode Island, so I also understand that people think when they give money to public entities, it gets wasted. But we’re an open book,” he said.
Mr. Berberick, however, would like to see that book be put under a magnifying glass.
“The Pell (Newport) bridge brings in $18 million a year, and $3 million goes to salary and benefits of the employees, and now they’re telling us they don’t have enough money to maintain the bridges,” he said. “Who has done a forensic audit to make sure everything is copacetic down there?”
It’s up to the anti-toll movement, Mr. Berberick said, to help alter the way that the state does business.
“We’ve got to change the course of this battleship and this is the watershed event in which to do it.”