TIVERTON — Over 350 people packed the Tiverton High School auditorium Tuesday night, with still more watching from the cafeteria across the hall, for the second of two public sessions hosted by the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) to debate tolls on the Sakonnet River Bridge.
RIDOT Director Michael P. Lewis took the floor, wireless mike in hand, and opened his comments with the observation that, “it’s not lost on me that this is not a popular proposal.”
He was right. Public opposition to the tolling proposal was virtually unanimous. It went on until after midnight when the meeting was ended with speakers still waiting to be heard.
For the first 50 minutes of the Portsmouth session, and the first 40 minutes of Tiverton’s, RIDOT Director Lewis, and RIDOT’s traffic engineering consultant Richard J. Gobeille, presented a 30-page Powerpoint presentation.
They talked about the history of the tolling legislation, the need for tolls to pay for maintenance, gas tax revenues and revenue shortfalls, tolling technology, and the proposed transfer of the Sakonnet River Bridge to the Turnpike and Bridge Authority.
There was no mention in either Mr. Lewis’s or Mr. Gobeille’s presentations of any possible economic, social, or environmental justice impacts of tolling on the communities involved, or of RIDOT’s solicitation of public views on these matters.
So single-focused was the RIDOT presentation that numerous speakers said they thought the decision to toll had already been made. Joe Medeiros, late in the evening, told Mr. Lewis, “I don’t think you guys care, and I think it’s a foregone conclusion.”
First in line to speak was Senator Walter Felag (D-Dist. 10), whose comments drew loud applause as he voiced a theme many echoed, that bridges connect communities. “This community bridge should bring people together, but when you put a toll on it, you’re creating a barrier,” he said.
“I vehemently oppose a toll on the Sakonnet River bridge,” he said. “I firmly believe this is the most important issue I’ve faced in the 34 years I’ve been an elected official.” He said there had been no analysis of the effects of tolls on businesses.
Rep. Jay Edwards (D-Dist. 70), spoke of the many veterans who cross the bridge to use the commissary at the military base on Aquidneck Island, and asked how they would be affected. “This toll is patently unfair to the people of Newport County,” he said.
A Bristol resident said, “People on the [Aquidneck] island are basically going to be held hostage to drive off there.” He said that traffic on Metacom Avenue will be increased, and asked why another source of revenue couldn’t be found.
Tiverton Town Council President Edward Roderick said that some people do not have credit cards or debit cards and won’t be able to buy or use transponder technology. He said people from Tiverton will have to drive out-of-state and through Massachusetts to get to other parts of Rhode Island. “I find it incomprehensible that Governor Chafee does not consider us important enough to come down and hear us.”
Tiverton councilor Jay Lambert listed numerous shops and businesses he and his wife shop in on Aquidneck Island, and said that tolls will force them to consider shopping in Massachusetts — a recourse many other speakers agreed with.
“I will be contributing to the maintenance of bridges in Providence, Pawtucket, and Woonsocket,” Mr. Lambert said, “but none of the residents there will contribute to the cost of the Sakonnet River Bridge.”
Tiverton councilor Bill Gerlach was critical of the workshop sessions. The hearings of yesterday and today amount to little more than “political theater at its finest,” he said.
Another speaker asked if any consideration had been given to people who are retired and disabled. “I wish the legislature would consider the people as part of their family.”
Several Fall River residents spoke against tolling. “This is one of the short-sighted things people do,” said one. He decried the loss of profits at local businesses that tolls would cause. He said he rides motorcycles, and “the loop” from Fall River, across the bridge, through Newport, and back up the west side, would cost $8. “That’s half a tank of gas on my motorcycle,” he said.
Another Fall River resident said, “I’m telling you, the toll goes up, my business goes elsewhere.”
Domenic Bitto, co-owner of Evelyn’s Drive-In, said some of her customers would be impacted by tolls.
Some comments were colorful. One speaker said, “I would like to see civil disobedience,” and “people walking through the tolls.” He said, “it’s not about the money, it’s about taking your government back.”
A woman who said she worked as an ironworker building the bridge, said, “put a toll on that bridge and I’ll be coming over on a horse and buggy.”
Speaker after speaker faced Director Lewis with their criticisms. “This is one of the most depressed areas of the state,” said Tiverton’s Budget Committee Chairman Chris Cotta, “and this is completely unfair.” He said, “this toll is nothing more than a tax.”
A Highland Road resident noted that for local residents, transportation options are limited. “There is no RIPTA [public bus transportation] service in Tiverton and Little Compton.”
A Portsmouth shop owner said one-third of her business comes from Tiverton, Little Compton and Massachusetts. “We’ve had customers tell us they’ll stop coming,” she said. “All Rhode Islanders believe we have a shared responsibility to take care of our state,” she said.
Another businesswoman said, “this situation is extremely fragile.” She said the Sakonnet River bridge is a vital “connecting bridge” for commerce, and that “the toll will put a tourniquet on the main artery that connects the businesses.”
Throughout the evening, people spoke about family relations that would be impacted by tolls, such as visits to elderly relatives. About special education arrangements that would be interfered with, cost-saving educational collaboratives that would become more costly, about the impact on disabled persons, or the impact on nursing home residents.
Some referred to the impact on employees who commute to work, or who provide social and care-taking services to people on both sides of the bridge, and have to travel back and forth frequently.
Others commented on a “ripple effect” between businesses impacted by tolls that would impact other businesses in turn, or pay less in business taxes.
Newport County is one community, one speaker said, and tolls will fragment that community.
Don Gomez of Little Compton, former town council member and the town’s school committee chairman, said he voted as a Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) member to grant one of the permits for construction of the Sakonnet River Bridge.
“Now that it’s a cash cow, I wish I could have my vote back,” he said. “I think it’s a done deal. I hope it isn’t.” Mr. Gomez said that tolls might force reconsideration of where to educate high-school-age students from Little Compton, who are now bused to Portsmouth High School.
One of the last speakers, Tiverton resident Roger Bennis, asked Mr. Lewis if he had an appointment with the governor within the next week to relay to him the results of the workshops, and Mr. Lewis said “no.”
The public session ended in an apparent mix-up. Several speakers, among them Rob Coulter, a former town council member and one of the organizers of the stop-the-toll movement, and Tiverton Town Administrator James Gonzalo, had previously arranged, Mr. Coulter said, to speak at the very end of the evening.
But after midnight, Mr. Lewis said enough, then appeared to relent to allow one or two more speakers, but by then it appeared it was too late to reverse course, the curtain came down, and the meeting ended. RIDOT spokesman, Charles St. Martin, said people who wish to submit comments for the record can send them by a form RIDOT has prepared, available at: http://www.dot.ri.gov/documents/tolling/Sakonnet%20Comment%20Form.pdf.
Mr. St. Martin said no further workshops about tolls or their impact are planned “at this time.”
An economic impact analysis is on the horizon. Allan A. Hodges, a consultant to RIDOT working with Commonwealth Engineers and Consultants, sat at the side of the auditorium, and did not participate. After midnight, however, he did say that he was working on his impact analysis and expects it to be done in January.
Mr. Hodges’ comment came during an exchange with Joy Gilkeson, a real estate agent, who said she’d circulated a survey to local citizens and business people. She filed about 150 personal impact statements that she’d gathered, which Mr. Lewis said would be made part of the record.
Only one person, a man who said he was from Lincoln, spoke in favor of tolls. He told the crowd that “this bridge is for you,” and he doesn’t see why people from the rest of the state should have to pay for its maintenance. Speaking of Aquidneck Island residents, he said, “these people are the wealthiest people in the state.” He left to a cascade of boos. “How much did you pay him?” one shouter yelled out to the front of the room.