“Today we are here to celebrate,” completion of the new Sakonnet River Bridge, GovernorLincoln Chafee told the crowd gathered atop the middle of the old span Friday morning.
But most in his audience were there for another purpose made clear by the signs they carried — “Tolls unfair to our towns” … “You will toll our businesses to death” … “Sakonnet senior against tolls.”
Lining the old bridge’s railing and surrounding the tent erected for the occasion, the toll protesters were silent while the governor and other dignitaries spoke about the bridge, although there was the occasional blast of a horn from cars passing close by on the new span.
Before the ceremonies began, however, a few managed to catch the governor’s ear.
Pat Lidstone of Common Fence Point asked the governor to spread the burden out “so everyone in the state will help pay.”
She said she has a neighbor who must go to kidney dialysis three days a week in Tiverton — “It will be a huge added expense that she doesn’t need.” She added that many people in Portsmouth go to St. Anne’s Hospital for cancer treatment because it is affiliated with Boston’s Dana Farber cancer hospital.
Lawrence Silvia of Old Mill Lane in Portsmouth said he is worried about what tolls will do to his small business, Watches Etc. in Middletown. “I have customers from Fall River, Tiverton … It is going to hurt.”
US Senator Jack Reed began his comments by recognizing the sign-carriers.
“Conscientious and concerned citizens” like those here from Portsmouth and Tiverton
“are one of the strengths of our country … Citizens who will engage and advocate.”
Asked afterward whether he supports the toll plan, Senator Reed said he understands the protesters’ message.
“It is clearly a state issue,” he said. “These are judgements that the General Assembly made.” He added that his primary focus has been to provide all the federal resources possible to projects such as this. He said that could be a mounting challenge depending on what federal budget cutting steps are taken in the next six months.
Governor Chafee and RI Department of Transportation Director Michael Lewis both said that they will continue to listen to resident concerns, including at public hearings that will be held later this year.
Governor Chafee repeated that it is his intent to wean Rhode Island from the past practice of borrowing to pay for road and ridge projects.
“When you go to the polls in November, for the first time in memory you will not be voting for a transportation bond issue … I don’t like to pay interest.”
To the protesters along the rusty railing, Mr. Lewis said, “Please be careful. There is a reason we are taking this bridge down.”
And toll concerns aside, they and Senator Reed all said that the new bridge is indeed worth celebrating.
Its completion means that trucks will no longer have to make long detours to avoid weight restrictions. It was built on time and on budget, Mr. Lewis said, thanking Cardi Construction for a job well done in this the largest single contract every awarded by the RIDOT.
Top quality materials combined with a thoroughly tested (in advance) foundation “were an expensive way to go but (this bridge) is designed for longevity … (They) give it the best chance for along life.”
They also noted that the new bridge includes a number of decorative and architectural features. These include LED-based lighting to illuminate the bridge’s piers in the river and light posts in the center median.
Among those holding signs were local and state officials.
Brendan Doherty, candidate for Congress, handed out leaflets reiterating his opposition. “This is not a fair toll — or tax — on the businesses and residents who travel the bridge every day. This is often called a working person’s bridge.”
State Reps Ray Gallison and Jay Edwards said they will work to have the legislature take a separate vote on the transfer of the bridge from the DOT to the Turnpike and Bridge Authority, not one wrapped up within a state budget vote has happened earlier this year. And they said they said that since the Federal Highway Administration would first have to approve any toll, they will seek a state resolution opposing the toll plan.
State Rep. Daniel Reilly and representative candidate Dennis Canario were also there to oppose tolls.