After debate lasting past midnight, the full Rhode Island House of Representatives approved an $8.78 billion budget for the next fiscal year on Friday.
The budget includes provisions that eliminate the Sakonnet River Bridge toll, replacing it with an overall roads and bridges maintenance plan funded by temporary surcharges on various motor vehicle fees as well as a hike in the gasoline tax.
And under the evolving plan that was approved by the House, the RI Turnpike and Bridge Authority will remain in control of the Sakonnet River Bridge (all four bridges) and will receive gas tax revenue for their maintenance.
The budget, which was approved just after 12:20 a.m. Friday, goes next to the state Senate and then to the governor for his signature. The Senate Finance Committee is expected to take up the House’s approved budget on Monday. Final House vote on the overall budget was 63-12 (the vote to eliminate Sakonnet River Bridge tolls was 63-11).
Rep. John G. Edwards (D-Dist. 70, Portsmouth, Tiverton), who helped champion the compromise in the House, said the Sakonnet Bridge toll quagmire was one of the toughest obstacles he has faced in his political career.
“I truly believe the tolls would have come at the unnecessary and destructive sacrifice of the Aquidneck Island economy, and the fact that we were able to combine our efforts and successfully resolve such a contentious issue tells me that today is not only a ‘win’ for the East Bay, but for the democratic process as well,” Rep. Edwards said. “Had we not come to this compromise, the consequences of allowing tolls on both sides of the island would have been egregious at best. Our delegation in both chambers worked extremely hard to come up with creative solutions for every road block that stood in the way of a fair solution. Mark my words: this compromise will be engraved in history as a turning point for Rhode Island.”
Sen. Louis P. DiPalma (D-Dist. 12, Middletown, Little Compton, Newport, Tiverton), the Senate leader on the pushback against the tolls, said that he is ecstatic about the House’s decision to pass a budget protecting the economic vitality of the East Bay.
“We have frequently been listed as one of the worst states in the country when it comes to maintaining our infrastructure, and that is an issue that has undoubtedly drawn some dark spots on our public image,” he said. “Infrastructure, believe it or not, plays a crucial role in how attractive the state is to outside businesses, tourists and other entities that fuel our economy. This is the beginning of a brighter, stronger Rhode Island. (We) are grateful for the unwavering support of our colleagues, the finance committee chairmen, leadership, and the dynamic Aquidneck Island community, who remained patient with us and fought hard alongside us for equal treatment.”
House Finance Committee Chairman Raymond E. Gallison Jr. (D-Dist. 69, Portsmouth,Bristol) said, “A toll on the bridge would have been devastating to our businesses, and would have made daily life very expensive for the people of our area. It was personally very important to me to protect my neighbors from being held hostage by tolls.”
Representative Edwards and Senator DiPalma also acknowledged the efforts of their colleagues, Rep. Dennis M. Canario (D-Dist. 71, Portsmouth, Little Compton, Tiverton), Rep. Linda Finn (D-Dist. 72, Middletown, Portsmouth), Rep. Marvin L. Abney (D-Dist. 73, Newport, Middletown), Chairman Gallison, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Daniel Da Ponte (D-Dist. 14, East Providence), Sen. Walter S. Felag Jr. (D-Dist. 10, Warren, Bristol, Tiverton), Sen. Christopher S. Ottiano (R-Dist. 11, Portsmouth, Bristol) and Sen. David E. Bates (R-Dist. 32, Barrington, Bristol, East Providence).