Bridge bill aims to knock Sakonnet toll off the table

Sakonnet River Bridge automated toll gantry. Sakonnet River Bridge automated toll gantry.

toll gantry2By Bruce Burdett

Lawmakers are crafting a bill that they say will provide enough money to maintain all of the state’s bridges and roads a decade and more into the future without tolling the Sakonnet River Bridge.

That bill, a product of the special legislative panel tasked with seeking ways to fund bridge maintenance, should be complete within the week, said state Rep. Jay Edwards. He and others outlined the likely highlights at a gathering hosted by the Portsmouth Concerned Citizens last Wednesday.

The bill will identify $900,000 worth of revenue from a variety of sources to care for the bridges, he said. Rep. Edwards, Senator Christopher Ottiano and Sen. Louis DiPalma are the primary authors but “we are getting considerable input from others” on the special panel. “It’s not just the few of us in the East Bay who are involved in putting this together.

Senator DiPalma, too, believes this bill is already garnering broad-based support on the committee and beyond.

“One of the criticisms before has been from people in other parts of the state who say, ‘I don’t want to pay for their bridge.’” This measure, however, goes “beyond just our bridges. It addresses transportation needs — bridges and roads — across the state for the next decade.”

The legislation, the authors said, will identify several sources for bridge maintenance money:

• A state constitutional amendment now forbids the state from spending more than 97 percent of its revenue — the balance goes to the state ‘rainy-day’ fund for use in capital spending needs. Their transportation bill would gradually (over six years) increase that restriction to 95.5 percent — “That additional 1.5 percent, amounting to about $52.5 million a year, would be dedicated  to maintaining our bridges,” Rep. Edwards said.

“Every department is getting a 1.5 percent haircut but the result benefits every department.” Higher education, for instance — “If you can’t get to URI or RIC because our roads and bridges are falling apart, then higher education has serious problem.”

“It doesn’t happen overnight,” Sen. DiPalma added. “If we can’t find a quarter percent per year in our state budget, we’ve got bigger problems than bridges … This is clearly a joint effort and a bipartisan effort — a collaboration  — the result of which will be to answer a statewide problem.”

• A 5 percent surcharge would be tacked on to Department of Motor Vehicle fees for five years only — “The law would include a sunset provision” ending the 5 percent surcharge after five years.

This would generate about $45 million during the first five “lean years” while the state pays off its remaining bridge debt, Rep. Edwards said. Thereafter, the money that had been spent on debt will be used for bridges.

There would be other smaller revenue sources, he said, “but these are the big ones.”

• The measure would specifically forbid any toll on the Sakonnet River Bridge.

• The bill would provide substantially more money for the RI Public Transit Authority, Sen. DiPalma said.

• The legislation would place the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority (RITBA), which oversees the four big East Bay Bridges, within the state Department of Transportation.

The benefit of this, Rep. Edwards said, is that RITBA could continue to toll the Newport Pell Bridge — “We will still need that revenue” — and tolling is a power that RIDOT does not have.

“RITBA would continue to collect tolls,” added Sen. DiPalma. “They are very good at that.”

• The omnibus bill will delay implementation of Sakonnet River Bridge tolls from April 1 to July 1.

The plan, Mr. Edwards said, is to introduce the bridge revenue measures within the state budget “so that Governor Chafee, who has been laser-focused on tolling this bridge from the outset” won’t be able to veto the bridge funding package. The governor does not have line item veto power so could not single the measures out from within the budget, he added.

“This state faces a billion dollar transportation infrastructure issue” and this bill offers a solution using “mostly existing money,” Sen. DiPalma added.

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