PROVIDENCE — The General Assembly passed legislation late Tuesday evening, July 2, allowing the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority (RITBA) to implement a Sakonnet River Bridge toll – not to exceed 10 cents – in order to preserve future tolling options for the bridge and secure a potential revenue stream for the state while it considers an alternative funding plan in the next several months.
The legislation (2013-H 6329A), sponsored by House Majority Leader Nicholas A. Mattiello (D-Dist. 15, Cranston), would allow the toll to be in place for Aug. 19, 2013 and would prohibit RITBA from charging more than 10 cents per vehicle until April 1, 2014. The 10-cent cap would apply to both in-state and out-of-state vehicles.
The legislation, broken down into three sections, passed by a 40-25 majority in the House and an even greater 29-8 margin in the Senate, but not until after some contentious words were exchanged between the members in both chambers.
In the House, Leader Mattiello, in voicing his support for the legislation, said it was necessary in order to give officials the time they need to study the matter further while abiding by the parameters set forth the federal government. He also said it the responsibility of the Assembly to begin paying for bridge and road maintenance now as opposed to pushing it down the road on the backs of future generations.
Sen. John G. Edwards (D-Dist. 70, Portsmouth, Tiverton), senior Deputy Majority Leader, was at odds with his counterpart. At one point late in the debate, Rep. Edwards stated, “Leader Mattiello you talk about how we all need to do the responsible thing in this state. Why is it the only time we are responsible it affects the East Bay?”
Federal regulations only allow tolling on a bridge if it commences before substantial completion of a bridge project. With the Sakonnet River Bridge project slated to be finished as early as August of this year, prohibiting any toll on the bridge until February could endanger any chance for tolling options in the future. This could ultimately result in the permanent loss of revenue stream options, increased tolls on the Pell Bridge or the transfer of the bridge back to the state. Charging a minimal toll in August 2013 ensures a viable option is available for lawmakers if they cannot agree on an alternative funding plan to maintain the bridge, which spans between Portsmouth and Tiverton.
The legislation also removes a provision from Article 5 of the budget that would have prevented RITBA from increasing the current toll on the Claiborne Pell Bridge. Removing that restriction allows the quasi-public authority to fulfill its bond covenants. Breaking these covenants could result in credit default or a rating downgrade. RITBA officials have stated they will not raise tolls on the Pell Bridge, which connects Newport and Jamestown, in the short-term.
Additionally, language in the bill slightly changes the mission of the Special Legislative Commission to Study the Funding for East Bay Bridges to include all state bridges. The commission’s reporting date has been pushed back from Dec. 1, 2013 to Jan. 15, 2014.