PORTSMOUTH — Jim Lipe was already one of the most vocal opponents of a toll on the Sakonnet River Bridge. But one day, while collecting signatures against the bridge levy, he received some extra motivation to see his fight to the end.
As he tells it, he walked into a business shortly after a local legislator had walked out.
“The guy who runs the place told me, ‘Hey, your buddy was just in here and he said the tolls are a done deal and that petition is a joke,’” recalled Mr. Lipe, a Tiverton resident who grew up in Portsmouth.
“I took it personally from there on.”
Make no mistake, Mr. Lipe said Friday while standing next to his pickup truck with the words, “No tolls forever!! Hurray!!” scrawled on the back: Legislation may have done away with the toll, but the public outcry was the real reason it was eliminated.
“The people spoke and when the people speak, you’ve got to listen,” he said. “The people did this, not the politicians.”
When the toll came to an official end on noon Friday, Mr. Lipe and another outspoken opponent, John Vitkevich, were both on the bridge relishing their victory.
Mr. Vitkevich, who was relentless in his efforts to get the toll squashed — he attended numerous R.I. Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority (RITBA) meetings and legislative hearings at the State House, organized a protest on the bridge last summer and took to the airwaves at every chance — took one final ceremonial bike ride with a “Refuse to Use EZ Pass” sign strapped to his back.
“I can burn it now,” he quipped, as passing motorists honked their approval. “Or I might send it to the Smithsonian.”
Besides a reporter and a television news crew, the two men were the only ones on the bridge at noontime Friday, when Gov. Lincoln Chafee ordered the toll deactivated. In fact, the switch was flipped even earlier that morning, said Mr. Vitkevich, leading he and Mr. Lipe to joke whether they could get the RITBA in trouble for ignoring the governor’s order.
The “10 cent toll” signs had been removed already, save for one on the Portsmouth side. “I want to go over there and re-program it,” said Mr. Vitkevich, suggesting some salty language in its place.
While he didn’t carry out his threat, Mr. Vitkevich did attach American flag balloons to the fence around the concrete building that houses the tolling mechanism.
“The system works. Believe it,” he said. “I can’t believe it’s happening. It’s just blowing my mind.”
Even so, he said he was always optimistic the toll would be squashed, either by state legislation or the federal courts. Portsmouth filed suit to prevent the toll in U.S. District Court in April 2013, and Bristol and Tiverton soon joined the action. Mr. Vitkevich said the federal judge assigned to the case, Ronald Lagueux, believed it was an issue for the state to resolve.
“I am sure if the legislature didn’t fix it, he was going to get enough pressure, from me and everybody else, to hear the case,” he said. “If Judge Lagueux were to hear the case, he would have had to find for the towns of Portsmouth, Bristol and Tiverton. The federal law says if you want to toll this bridge, that toll had to be on the bridge before they opened it to traffic. It’s that simple.”
(The state opened the bridge to traffic in September 2012, yet the “placeholder” dime toll didn’t go into effect until nearly a year later.)
Mr. Vitkevich said he’s grateful for the General Assembly-approved statewide infrastructure spending plan, but he wishes more people understood why it was a better option than a Sakonnet Bridge toll.
“Last week I’m listening to some bozo from Warwick who’s complaining that now he’s got to pay more for an inspection because the people over here don’t want to pay for a toll. He doesn’t understand: The money that was going to be generated off this bridge was not going to fix roads in Warwick, Woonsocket, or Westerly. The state’s got to come to terms with, it was a statewide fix for a statewide problem,” he said.
Not over yet
Although the toll is gone, Mr. Vitkevich said he’s still not completely satisfied.
“The big thing is,” he said, pointing to the toll gantry that was still up Friday. “I want to see that gone.”
President Barack Obama, he said, has already signaled he wants the Federal Highway Administration to consider relaxing state restrictions on tolling.
“If the federal government removes that restriction from federal law, I’m sure Mr. Lewis will want to put a toll on 95,” he said. “More importantly, if the equipment is there, it’s not going to take them long to just re-string the stuff up there. When they shut it off, it’s over. When they take it down, it’s really over.”
Apparently, some joker already has ideas for the gantry, Mr. Lipe pointed out. A few days earlier, someone had taken out a Craigslist classified ad for the mechanism: “Selling for 2 Million!! Disassemble yourself!” it reads.
“I was going to put it on eBay myself,” added Mr. Vitkevich. “One-year-old galvanized gantry for sale.’”
Friday, however, was for celebrating, giving thanks — and a little gloating.
“Congratulations to the East Bay reps, congratulations to the East Bay motorists, congratulations to everybody who kept their foot on the gas pedal. I know I bothered them a lot,” said Mr. Vitkevich. “This got jammed down our throats because they thought they’d get away with it. They never expected the groundswell of opposition, and we kept at it.”
Mr. Lipe said plenty of people behind the scenes deserve recognition, and he brought up two people “whose names never get mentioned” — Chee Laureanno and Joy Gilkeson of East Shore Properties.
“Every copy of the petition I brought in there,” said Mr. Lipe. “They went through the names, they looked up the laws, they looked what was passed for the budget year after year, they called politicians, they talked with Virginia about the toll problems down there. The amount of work those two women put in and the other volunteers they gathered was absolutely tremendous.”