PORTSMOUTH/TIVERTON — Anywhere from 200 to 350 people — depending on whose numbers you believe — took to the Sakonnet River Bridge bike path Sunday evening armed with signs of protest and and a clear message to the R.I. Turnpike and Bridge Authority (RITBA): Don’t toll us.
The tolling gantry on the bridge is expected to be activated by RITBA at 12:01 a.m. Monday. Those with an active E-ZPass will be charged 10 cents each way, although most protesters Sunday night said they’ll be removing their transponders from their vehicles. (Last week RITBA Chairman David Darlington said the Authority won’t, at this time, be sending bills to drivers without an active transponder. The onus is on them to pay the toll, he said.)
John Vitkevich, one of the organizers of what turned out to be a peaceful demonstration, said he was pleased with the turnout at the protest, which featured speeches by himself and others as drivers honked their horns in support.
“The people who are taking their Sunday afternoon to do this … it means something to them. Everybody’s pissed off that we have a toll on the bridge … and Darlington doesn’t get it yet,” Mr. Vitkevich said. “One minute he’s going to mail the bill. Now he’s not going to mail the bill. He’s going to put a phone number up so you can call in and give a credit card. You know what the credit card charge would be for a 20-cent toll? C’mon Dave, give it up.”
Marilyn Burns and Sarah Zlydaszek of Portsmouth and Joanne Ryder of Tiverton were among those protesting Sunday, and each came with signs. The three women work together at the Portsmouth Shop and are worried about the impact a toll will have on their business.
“A third of our business comes from across the bridge and we’ve been told point blank by customers that they’ll stop coming,” said Ms. Zlydaszek, who has a transponder but won’t be using it. “It would hurt our business, it would hurt the sales tax revenue that we send to the state, and in general it’s just not a good message for people (you’re trying to) welcome to the island. There are alternate means of funding that have been found, and the government is choosing not to listen to the people.”
Ralph Craft of Portsmouth, who was on the bridge with his family, said the toll is just another added burden for working families and small businesses.
“We’ve got a small area in Rhode Island that’s being tolled, where 90 percent of Rhode Island isn’t. We’re getting hammered,” Mr. Craft said. “I’m a blue-collar worker. Both the wife and I go off the island every day and we don’t have it. It simply comes down to money. It’s going to hurt us all. You really have to wonder if they want small businesses in Rhode Island. Do they want Wal-Marts, do they want all the big conglomerates and just get rid of the small people?”
Mr. Craft also won’t be using his transponder, and neither will Mike Gifford of Portsmouth, who said he works a lot off the island.
“I’m a contractor and I have two pickup trucks and it’s going to cost me a lot of money — not at 10 cents but at whatever they raise it up to eventually. It’s going to hurt me and my business,” he said.
Fewer trips to town
With a toll in place, Charlie Chase of Fall River said he won’t be coming into Portsmouth as much as he’s done in the past.
“It’s not that I’m out here just to make a noise. I come over here to Mello’s (farm stand) to buy vegetables. I think they have just about the best cucumbers around,” said Mr. Chase, 75. “I work for a medical supply house and I come across the bridge quite a bit, so that’s going to hurt the business. We’re probably going to either cut down on the number of times we come to the doctors’ offices, or we will just drop the islands — I don’t know. You and I both know it’s not going to stay at 10 cents.”
Mr. Chase said he’s tired of people being “taxed to death” and said that’s not what America is about. “America is for the people, not the politicians. I come from Massachusetts and what happened to the Mass Pike? Once it was paid off, the toll was supposed to be taken off. Once the politicians get their hands in the people’s pockets, they never get them out.”
Later on, Mr. Chase grabbed a microphone and told the assembled crowd, “Remember the tolls at the polls.”
Jim O’Dell of Tiverton said that something few people are talking about is the poor shape that the “brand-new” bridge is in. He claimed the span is “full of stress fractures.”
Jeanne Smith of the group S.T.O.P. (Sakonnet Toll Opposition Platform) said taxpayers got “hoodwinked” by legislators who voted in an 11th-hour bill back in June to create a 10-cent toll on the bridge. “Next year we have to get rid of our governor and get rid of the speak of the House,” she said.
Before calling an end to the protest at about 6:15 p.m., Mr. Vitkevich urged the crowd to “jam up (RITBA’s) phone lines.”
“Mr. Darlington,” he said. “Take the toll down, take the gantry down. Go home.”
Watch a short video of John Vitkevich speaking to the group of protesters: