The crowd filled town council chambers and the hallway outside. Many others peered through open windows from the parking lot in hopes of hearing what the governor had to say about the plan he supports to slap a $4 each-way toll on the new bridge.
Acknowledging that, Gov. Lincoln Chafee agreed to take toll questions before talking about the other business-assistance issues for which the meeting had been called. But at the first audience question — and for most thereafter — he stepped aside, letting Department of Transportation Chief Michael Lewis provide the answers.
The audience did not mince words.
“It’s rage,” that people here feel about the toll plan, said Jim Hall, owner of Aquidneck Construction. ”People in the community are now going to get hammered again.”
Describing the big cost hikes his firm and customers will face to truck materials on and off the island, Mr. Hall said, “It’s not right that people on this island are going to support the rest of the state.”
“You are supposed to be helping small business,” said Jeff Phelan, owner of Leisure Limousine
of Portsmouth, but instead you are killing small businesses like his.
On top of tolls, Mr. Phelan said he had just learned that he now faces a 7 percent tax on his limo business earnings, a new tax backed by the governor. This enables Fall River competitors, who have no such tax, to undercut him.
Mr. Lewis said the business impact of tolls will all be part of a study that the state will soon begin with results due before year’s end.
But that angered some in the audience too.
“Why are you just now doing the economic impact study?” asked one woman. “Wouldn’t it have made more sense to do it before” the transfer of the bridge to the RI Turnpike and Bridge Authority was included in the budget presented by the governor and approved by the legislature.
Karen Toti, president of the Portsmouth Business Association, was one of many who protested the fact that this is the only part of the state to get bridge tolls. Why, she asked to
applause, “do we have to support all the bridges in the state?”
“We need everyone in the state to have to share the burden,” another woman said.
“We are paying twice,” said another — first with gas tax and then with tolls. Our taxes and tolls go to support the other 800 bridges in the state.
After Mr. Lewis described the state’s dire need for money to pay for bridge and road work, audience member Amy Stone asked what the estimated annual cost for maintaining the new bridge will be.
$2 million, Mr. Lewis replied.
Ms. Stone then offered two ways to come up with that money and more.
First, the state could take the 1 cent of gas tax money that has been diverted to other non-transportation related uses — that would come to $5 million, she said.
Second, she said, they could use the nearly $15 million worth of legislative grants that lawmakers get to dole out without any actual legislative action.
“In Rhode Island, it’s never a spending issue, it’s always a revenue issue,” she said.
“We are smart people,” she added — smart enough to realize that the state’s offer to use any excess toll revenue on local transportation projects merely means that Portsmouth’s gas tax share can then be used elsewhere in the state.
Gov. Chafee said his administration is pursuing many ways to reduce expenses but added that “you never read about a new efficiency in the paper … you just read about new tolls and taxes.”
To several of those who spoke, Gov. Chafee said he understands the concerns — “That is why we are here.”
But he also said that the state has a long history of ignoring bridge maintenance which has left the state in a terrible position.
“Now we are paying through the nose for that mistake … I don’t want to make that same mistake,” he said.
Audience members had much else to say about tolls — enough to take up virtually all of the hour and a half that the agenda had said would be used to talk about programs to help small business.
• Are you aware, a woman asked, that the tolls will divert many thousands of cars through Warren and Bristol each day, possibly leading to the need to widen roads there in the future?
“That has to be looked at,” and will be in the study, Mr. Lewis replied.
• With tolls, “For the short term we will be flush with money,” one man said. But down the road, the state, which faces the need to fix the Route 6/10 interchange, will decide to put that, too, under Turnpike and Bridge jurisdiction. “We are the bridge authority. We’re going to get all of the bridges.”
• “We are tired of being the ATM machine for Providence,” said Kathleen Melvin of Portsmouth (quoting, she said, a state representative).
• A woman who commutes to college said she won’t be able to afford the extra $40 a month in tolls with her minimum wage job. “I’ll have to drop out.”
• Another said the tolls will hit many Navy Base and Raytheon employees who commute in from Massachusetts. And there are worries, she said, about whether that will weigh into future federal base relocation considerations.
• Dennis Canario, a candidate for state representative from Portsmouth, urged Gov. Chafee to consider two alternatives: First, a hike in the gas tax that would require all Rhode Islanders to share the cost; and second, locating the toll booth far enough up Route 24 that local traffic could bypass the tolls.
• A Middletown man said that tolls will be a big burden for older people who must travel often off-island for medical care. He said the whole EZ-Pass system is overwhelming to many of them.