PORTSMOUTH — A grandmother said a bridge toll would be a barrier separating her from grandchildren, friends and senior center.
Business owners lined up to warn that a Sakonnet River Bridge toll will cost them customers and make it more difficult to lure employees. Some have already looked at off-island location options
And many others called it unfair to toll people in the East Bay and Southeastern Massachusetts while the rest of the state rides roads and bridges for free.
Hundreds jammed the Portsmouth High School auditorium Monday evening for the first of two sessions set by the state as part of the required impact study to be submitted to the Federal Highway Administration. The crowd filled the auditorium with close to 400 people while others tried to peer through the doors from the lobby and still more opted to watch via television in the cafeteria.
The meeting had been billed as a chance for people to talk about the impact tolls will have on them and they lined up by the dozens to do just that.
But first, Michael P. Lewis, director of the state Department of Transportation led the audience through a Powerpoint explanation of why the governor (who was not present) and DOT think tolls are needed. That presentation will be available in a day or two on the state DOT website.
He reiterated that legislation approved last year as part of the budget process would create a four-bridge East Bay bridge system (Mount Hope, Jamestown, Pell and Sakonnet River bridges) under the care of the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority. Tolls would be placed on the Sakonnet River Bridge to provide the money to maintain these four costly bridges “for perpetuity.”
As things stand now, “RIDOT does not have the revenue to adequately maintain the bridges and highways in Rhode Island,” he said.
The crowd sat quietly for 50 minutes as he described DOT’s debt woes and the lack of funding options available to it.
But when tolling consultant Rick Gobeille of Jacobs Engineering rose to describe studies done by his firm, audience patience wore thin.
He said that moving toll booths away from the bridge to give locals a free way across would cut into revenue and increase traffic on local roads so “so do not meet (the) purpose and need of the project.”
He said that while some drivers might opt to take the free Mt. Hope Bridge instead, fears of a major traffic increase through Bristol and Warren have been overstated.
As he spoke of E-Z Pass pricing options, a woman rose and broke the audience silence.
“We don’t want to hear that. We want to hear ‘no tolls.'”
Mr. Lewis pleaded for silence as the audience cheered. Mr. Gobeille attempted to resume but picked up the pace and quickly sat down in the midst of “No toll” chants.
First to speak when the audience got its chance over an hour into the meeting was Philip Driscoll of Portsmouth.
Facing Mr. Lewis, he said, “I’m struck by your presentation that it does not include any economic analysis. There is a long history in Rhode Island of funds being earmarked for specific uses “and they never wind up there.”
“There is a major, major credibility issue hear and you people have not done your homework,” Mr. Driscoll added.
Larry Fitzmorris, head of Portsmouth Concerned Citizens, questioned the fairness of a system that
uses bridge tolls to maintain bridges and roads in the East Bay while gasoline taxes paid here go to help pay for projects in the rest of the state.
The toll is “a little burden-shifting scheme,” he said. “The bill is being delivered to us … All of these studies are being conducted after the governor and general assembly made the decision without doing their homework simply because they don’t care — they just want the revenue.”
Bill Clark, Portsmouth’s director of business development, criticized DOT’s efforts to gauge impact on local businesses. Of 33 businesses originally interviewed, “three were from Portsmouth, four were from Tiverton … Only 12 were actual business owners.”
He said local studies reveal that the impact would be severe (one small business owner has estimated the hit at $56,000 a year). A toll “creates a barrier isolating the area, forces employers to offer higher wages to offset the toll cost, steers customers away and boosts transportation costs.
“The funding of our Department of Transpotation is the responsibility of our legislature, not Newport County … I think (the toll plan) is discriminatory and unfair, a quick fix by the legislature,” Mr. Clark said.
These towns are “the impact area,” said Tom Casselman of Portsmouth. “They look at us as the golden goose.” He said three business clients told him that if the bridge is tolled they are moving and he warned that Newport Grand may well collapse in the face of tolls and new casino competition, costing the state up to $50 million a year in revenue.
“Your tables and projected income are simply incorrect,” he said.
Chiropractor Ron Marsh said that he and many of his patients cross the bridge and he fears some patients may find other options to avoid tolls. Even with E-Z Pass he calculates that he’ll pay $697 a year in tolls. They should take the money he and his patients pay in tolls “and put a bronze plaque on the bridge with my name on it as a major benefactor.”
Looking at the consultant, Ralph Craft of Portsmouth said, “Whatever we paid you is too much … it’s a shell game. The amount of money I will (pay) on this toll is more than I will spend on Christmas.”
If Route 95 can’t be tolled because, as Mr. Lewis said, it was built with federal funds, “How about on Route 146. Why do other users go scot free and we get stuck?”
Len Katzman, chairman of the Portsmouth Democratic Town Committee, challenged the study process.
There are two ways to conduct a study, he said. One is to do a straightforward analysis and let the chips fall where they may. The other, apparent in this case, is to choose “the outcome you want — tolls — and pick the results you want.” He said the interview forms being distributed as part of the study are designed to show a reduced impact on business.
Pointing to Flo’s Clamshack owner Komes Rozes, he said, “Flo’s may be a small business but it defines what we are as a community … A micro economy has flourished here on the premise that there are no barriers.
A second hearing was scheduled for Tuesday in Tiverton (after the Times went to press) and will be reported on our website and in next week’s paper.
If tolls win approval, they could be in place by next summer, Mr. Lewis said.