Less than two weeks before higher Sakonnet River Bridge tolls were due to kick in, both the state Senate and House budget committees voted unanimously Tuesday to push that toll deadline back from April 1 to May 15.
Votes on both measures are due to be held in the two full houses today (Thursday).
The extra month and a half gives the legislature time to act on bills meant to provide a new method for funding state road and bridge work — one that involves no toll on the Sakonnet River Bridge, for which many East Bay commuters are pushing.
And a day later, the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority (RITBA) voted Wednesday to go along with that later deadline. But it did so with warnings of its own.
If the General Assembly does not allow it to hike tolls on the Sakonnet River Bridge from 10 cents to 50 cents each way (for those with RI transponders; $3.75 for all other drivers of cars), it will turn responsibility for both the Sakonnet River and Jamestown Verrazano bridges to the state Department of Transportation.
And it will raise tolls on the Newport Pell Bridge to $1.04 for those with Rhode Island EZ-Pass; $5 for everyone else.
David Darlington, RITBA’s board chairman, said the agency needs to take those steps to assure bond holders that there will money to pay for maintenance projects, some of which have already been contracted.
“RITBA cannot acquire or manage bridge assets without an appropriate and reliable revenue stream that supports the maintenance of those assets … The ten-cent, so-called ‘placeholder’ (Sakonnet River Bridge) toll added as a rider to the budget at the end of last year’s session is clearly insufficient to cover RITBA’s revenue needs through July 1 and beyond,” Mr. Darlington wrote before the series of votes.
“When the executive and legislative branches approached us to consider taking responsibility for the Sakonnet River and Jamestown Verrazano bridges we clearly stated that we could not do it using Newport Pell Bridge revenues,” he added.
Without clear sources of revenue, Mr. Darlington said that RITBA is at risk of seeing its bond rating downgraded which would boost costs and possibly force further toll hikes.
A new statewide method of funding road and bridge work was devised by a toll study committee and is now being considered by both the Senate and House budge committees. It would provide about $1 billion over the next decade with money from a number of sources, among them:
• Nearly half would come from dedicating 1.5 percent of state revenue (phased in over six years) to a roads and bridges trust fund.
• As DOT debt is paid down, money that had gone to that debt would also be placed in the fund.
• If the state is allowed to collect sales tax on internet purchases, thus cutting the state sales tax to 6.5 percent, that new sales tax rate would be bumped up to 6.625 percent with the extra dedicated to roads and bridges.
• The only “new” revenue would come from a 5 percent surcharge on all motor vehicles fees, a charge that would be limited to five years.
• The bill would eliminate the RI Turnpike and Bridge Authority except as an agency to toll the Newport Bridge, and would place RITBA within the DOT.
“I think we have a way forward” for all of the state’s road and bridge needs,” said Sen. Louis DiPalma, who introduced the Senate version. The identical House plan was introduced by Rep. Jay Edwards.