Bill that blocks tolls gets Senate panel’s OK

toll gantry2

toll gantry2By William Rupp

PROVIDENCE — A bill that blocks tolls on the Sakonnet River and Mt. Hope bridges and builds a first-ever infrastructure fund for bridge and transportation upkeep in Rhode Island was approved unanimously by the Senate Finance Committee at a hearing Tuesday afternoon.

The bill now moves on to the full Senate for a vote.

“We have ignored the maintenance of our bridges far too long,” said Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed (D-District 13, Newport, Jamestown) at the hearing. “This bill does that.”

The bill also “welcomes people to Rhode Island” from other states without charging them tolls, which boosts economic development, said Sen. Walter Felag Jr. ( D-District 10, Tiverton, Bristol and Warren), a sponsor of the legislation.

The  legislation would raise about $800 million over the next 10 years without hiking motor vehicle fees, according to Sen. Louis DiPalma (D-District 12, Tiverton, Middletown, Newport and Little Compton), the prime sponsor of the Senate bill.

“The bill clearly is bipartisan,” added Sen. DiPalma. “We listened, we heard and we are going to act by continuing to work with the House” to turn this bill into law.

The bill (S-2335 Sub A) also transfers ownership of Sakonnet and Mt. Hope bridges to the R.I. Department of Transportation (RIDOT) while creating the Rhode Island transportation infrastructure fund within the Rhode Island intermodal surface transportation fund.

“We listened carefully to the Aquidneck Island residents and business owners who have exercised their democratic rights in speaking up for what is fair regarding bridge tolls in the East Bay, and now we’ve acted,” Sen. DiPalma said previously. “I think this demonstrates the strong commitment of the General Assembly to the people it represents.”

Rep. John Edwards (D-District 70, Portsmouth, Tiverton) is the prime sponsor of the House companion bill.

The infrastructure fund would have no impact on the FY 2015 budget. It would not start to be built until FY 2016 by adding one quarter of one percent of the state’s annual spending until it is equal to 1.5 percent of the state’s total appropriation.

From FY 2016 through FY 2018, an amount equal to all the RIDOT debt would be subtracted from the motor fuel tax and deposited into the transportation infrastructure fund. Then beginning in FY 2019 and in each year going forward, $45 million of the motor fuel tax would be deposited into the infrastructure fund.

The General Assembly also would appropriate from the general fund any shortfalls in revenues from the reduction or eliminate of tolls on all four bridges in the East Bay Bridge system, specifically the Mt. Hope, Sakonnet, Newport and Jamestown Verrazano bridges.

The RI Turnpike and Bridge Authority would retain control of the Newport and Jamestown bridges, but it would be prohibited from collecting tolls on the latter bridge without authorization by the General Assembly.

The bill also creates a joint 12-member legislative commission to monitor, study, report and make recommendations on all area of the motor fuel tax and to seek out ways to replace that tax.

Approximately 50 people filled to overflowing the Senate Finance Committee office on the second floor for the hearing. Passage of the bill by the committee was greeted with a round of applause.

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