PORTSMOUTH/TIVERTON — John Vitkevich doesn’t know exactly what will happen Sunday night when he — and hopefully many others, he said — will gather on the Sakonnet River Bridge bike path to protest a toll set to begin the following day.
But he’s willing to spend a night in jail to get his point across, he said.
“I’m ready to take a punch,” said Mr. Vitkevich, a staunch opponent of the tolls who’s been making the rounds of the radio talk show circuit in recent weeks. “I’ll be 60 in November. I’m ready to take one for the team. That’s how passionate I feel about the Sakonnet River Bridge.”
Mr. Vitkevich said he’ll be on the bridge’s bike path by 5 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 18. He hopes to have a gathering of protesters meet him at 6 p.m. outside the cement block building — it contains the tolling mechanism — on the Portsmouth side of the span. There, they will demand that The Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority (RITBA) cease its plan to implement tolls on the bridge.
What happens after that is anybody’s guess.
“Is it going to be violent? Is the State Police going to be there? I don’t know,” said Mr. Vitkevich, adding that while he hopes the protest will be peaceful, he’s not sure how far he’ll take things. “The toll building is illegal. It doesn’t belong there.”
RITBA says it will begin collecting a 10-cent toll from drivers each time they cross the bridge starting at 12:01 a.m. Monday, Aug. 19.
RITBA originally wanted to collect 75 cents each way for drivers with E-ZPass transponders purchased in Rhode Island, with a maximum daily charge of $1.50. All other drivers would have paid $3.75 each way, and those without a transponder would be sent a bill with an extra $1.50 charge added on.
But in an 11th-hour action move back in June, the General Assembly decided to delay RITBA’s proposed tolls until a legislative study commission could look into alternate ways to fund the maintenance of all state bridges. The study commission must issue its report to the full assembly by Jan. 15.
However, lawmakers agreed to authorize a 10-cent charge — scheduled to expire April 1, 2014 — as a place-keeper so that a toll could remain an option for the bridge. Under federal law, if no toll was in place at the time it was “substantially complete” — when the bridge’s construction contract ends — RITBA would not be able to charge any fee for vehicles to cross the span.
For Mr. Vitkevich and others, however, any toll is unjust for residents of Aquidneck Island and the surrounding East Bay area, who already pay to cross the Claiborne Pell Bridge in Newport.
“Put two tolls in each county in Rhode Island and I don’t have a problem. When you put two tolls in the same county, I’ve got a problem,” he said.
Mr. Vitkevich also claims that RITBA has inflated the costs of building the bridge and for maintaining the tolling system in order to justify its fee structure for the tolls. “They’re making it up as they go along,” he said.
‘Refuse to use’
Mr. Vitkevich is the man behind the “Refuse to Use your EZ-Pass” movement (www.donttoll.com), which urges drivers to either deactivate or remove their EZ-Pass transponder when crossing the Sakonnet River Bridge. (Unlike the Newport bridge, the Sakonnet Bridge has no toll booths or collectors; fees will be charged electronically using an overhead gantry.)
Without an activated EZ-Pass, the bridge’s overhead cameras will take a picture of a vehicle’s license plate and RIPTA will mail a bill to the registered driver. Mr. Vitkevich’s reasoning is that it will cost the Authority more to process and mail out bills than it will collect on the tolls.
“Refuse to use your EZ-Pass. Mail the bill. When I get the bill I will promptly pay by check,” said Mr. Vitkevich, who calls the move “financial disobedience.”
Mr. Vitkevich, joined by a few others, has been pedaling along the bike path portion of the bridge on mornings this week with a “Refuse to use your EZ-Pass” cardboard sign on his back — and getting some supportive honks from drivers. (On Wednesday morning he had to leave early to catch a RITBA meeting in Jamestown.) More signs are being made, he said, and on Friday afternoon a group of protesters will gather on a grassy knoll on the Portsmouth side of the bridge.
David Darlington, RITBA chairman, said he’s not concerned that the “refuse to use” drivers will pose a problem for the Authority.
“I don’t see any significant number of folks that will follow that,” he said. “The tolls are set in state law, so it’s a violation of state law if they don’t pay.”
He acknowledged, however, that collecting a 10-cent toll is not the best way of doing business. “We didn’t set this 10-cent toll. This is not how we have chosen to go forward,” Mr. Darlington said, adding that the system in place is the most efficient way to collect the tolls at the original fee structure.
“But it’s not the most efficient way to collect a dime toll. It doesn’t make any sense for us to use dollars to collect dimes,” he said. “We basically have a nine-month period where we’re in a holding pattern. We’re doing our part until then.”
The Authority won’t have any real data on how many drivers are using transponders until after Aug. 19, he said, adding that RITBA’s original financial analysis didn’t consider a 10-cent toll. “Beginning on Aug. 19, we’ll have real good data” on who’s using their EZ-Pass, he said.
RITBA has left open the possibility of adding a surcharge to bills sent out to drivers who don’t use their transponders, he said. (In an e-mail sent out this week to people with an EZ-Pass account, RITBA cautions drivers to mount their transponder properly in order “to avoid the video toll processing fee.”)
According to Rep. John Edwards (Dist. 70-Portsmouth, Tiverton), however, a surcharge would be illegal.
“The enabling legislation says it very, very clear. They can charge a 10-cent toll and that’s it. It doesn’t allow for anything else,” Rep. Edwards said Tuesday.
Mr. Darlington has a different interpretation of the legislation. “The legislation clearly talks about tolls. Surcharges are not tolls. Our attorneys have us believe that they’re not the same,” he said.
Although a surcharge could be an effective tool in encouraging people to pay the toll in a timely fashion, he said, “We haven’t determined whether we will charge a surcharge. Those are all things that are options.”
It’s unclear how many people will show up during Sunday’s protest — or what will transpire.
Another man who said he’ll be there Sunday is “John Galt,” a pseudonym for an anonymous protester who, like Mr. Vitkevich, has been contacting various media outlets about the tolls. (“John Galt” is a character in an Ayn Rand novel who protests the government’s impact on citizens’ lives and liberty.)
“John Galt,” on radio shows and in letters sent to local officials, says on “behalf of those assembled,” he will “demand the keys to the toll building” and “occupy” it. If the keys are not handed over, he warns, at 7 p.m. the gathering will “forcibly enter the block building.”
Although they’ve both said similar things to the media and plan on protesting on the bridge Sunday night, Mr. Vitkevich said he and “John Galt” are not the same guy.
“I am not ‘John Galt,'” he said while inviting a reporter to listen to the differences in the men’s voices during their radio appearances. “I would have to have an overdose of Valium to sound like him. I believe he lives in Common Fence Point.”
Mr. Vitkevich also doesn’t support “John Galt’s” intention to forcibly enter the toll building, saying he hopes the protest will be peaceful.
RITBA, meanwhile, doesn’t plan on sending anyone Sunday to the bike path which, Mr. Darlington pointed out, isn’t even officially open yet.
“I don’t want to send anyone out after a fictitious anarchist,” he said, referring to “John Galt.”
However, he said the authority does have an interest in keeping people on the bridge safe, and will seek to have anyone responsible for damaging property prosecuted.
“People have a right to protest, but if they vandalize a public building, that’s a criminal act,” said Mr. Darlington, who questions the wisdom behind such acts. “If we woke up Monday morning and the building had been damaged … all of those costs would have to be borne by all the other users.”
Rep. Edwards said he hopes the protest Sunday will be peaceful.
“I’m in favor of civil disobedience as long as it’s civil. But if they do something that they could be arrested for, I don’t support that,” he said, adding he’s not sure if he’ll be able to attend the protest because he may have a work commitment.
He and other East Bay legislators will continue fighting against the tolls, he said.
“We have not given up,” Rep. Edwards said. “The (legislative study) commission is going to be starting in September. This is a working class bridge for working class people and there should not be a toll or an extra tax on working class people.”