By Bruce Burdett
East Bay residents by the busload returned to the State House Thursday to voice their fear and fury over plans to toll the Sakonnet River Bridge.
Although over 200 people showed up for an afternoon House hearing, most had to watch from afar as the small finance committee room had a strictly enforced capacity of 70. The overflow was sent to an upstairs room to watch the proceedings on television, called down one by one to testify — the list of those wanting to speak filled four pages. Others milled about in the hallway with their signs, venting frustration about tolls and the hearing process to anyone who would listen.
The occasion was a hearing into a bill (H5137, S0020) sponsored by Rep. Jay Edwards and Sen. Walter Felag and backed by just about every other East Bay lawmaker, that would reverse a measure in this year’s budget that would transfer control of the Sakonnet River and Jamestown bridges from the state Department of Transportation, thus enabling tolls on the Sakonnet River Bridge.
Although the hearing room was packed with sign-carrying toll protesters (one dressed as a chicken with a ‘tired of being plucked’ message), for much of the time only a handful of finance committee members were present. Others were said to be attending a press conference on economic development.
First to speak was Rep.Edwards. Like most to follow he called the tolls unfair to residents of the East Bay and nearby Massachusetts and said they would “be a death knell to the Newport County economy.”
“The $20-plus million they suck in (from tolls) will be used to support the state’s other bridges,” he said. That is “unfair and nonsense.”
Rep. Edwards said the toll will hit businesses “just starting to claw back from recession” and will ultimately cost the state more in lost revenue than the tolls ever produce.
“It will be like putting jersey barriers right in the middle of Route 24 and saying, ‘Don’t come here, go to the Cape.'”
The Turnpike and Bridge Authority plans to start tolling this summer at a rate of 75 cents each way for drivers with RI EZPass transponders, $3.75 for those with out-of-state transponders, and $5.25 for drivers without a transponder.
Jeanne Smith, a leader of the anti-toll fight, said all in Rhode Island will be hit by the impact of tolls on revenues and lost business.
“Our state is connected by bridges. We are the Ocean State,” she said. It will be “like a person being killed by blocked arteries — this would be bad for the whole state.”