Toll standoff lingers as bridge hearings end

Senator Louis DiPalma testifies against tolls at an earlier Senate hearing. Senator Louis DiPalma testifies against tolls at an earlier Senate hearing.

Senator Louis DiPalma testifies against tolls at an earlier Senate hearing.

Senator Louis DiPalma testifies against tolls at an earlier Senate hearing.

Rhode Island already collects enough money in motor vehicle fees and taxes to maintain its big bridges, Senator Louis DiPalma told the Commission to Study the Funding of the East Bay Bridges at its final public hearing Thursday.

It just spends that money on other things.

It is an issue of equity and fairness, Sen. DiPalma said, as he and others repeated their call for all in Rhode Island to share the cost of upkeep on all of the state’s roads and 1,200 bridges.

But it’s also an issue of money, countered Richard Licht, director of administration for Gov. Lincoln Chafee. The state budget cannot take on the added burden of maintaining the four major East Bay bridges without that toll money. And the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority, which operates them now, said it will be forced to turn those bridges over to the state if it doesn’t have that added toll revenue.

The funds are indeed there, Sen. DiPalma said. Over $40 million of the money collected for drivers’ licenses, motor vehicle registrations and more winds up in the state General Fund each year, he said.

“This is doable,” said Senator Christopher Ottiano. Returning some of the transportation money to the General Fund and hiking the gasoline tax by 2 percent provide the revenue needed to maintain bridges without this new toll, he said.

Mr. DiPalma has already filed a measure (along with Rep. Jay Edwards on the House side) that would gradually shift that money into a statewide bridge maintenance fund. They also call for an increase in several motor vehicle fees. Together, these moves would “more than offset” the $12 million-plus that Sakonnet River Bridge tolls might generate with tolls ranging from perhaps 75 cents for those with Rhode Island E-ZPass to $5.24 for those without a transponder — each way The toll is temporarily at 10 cents while the situation is sorted out.

That money, Mr. DiPalma said could be used to cover debt owed by the state on past road and bridge projects, freeing up money to pay for statewide upkeep going forward.

But as in past hearings, these proposals and others received push-back from state government. Thursday’ session, the commission’s fourth and last hearing before making its recommendations by Jan. 30, covered familiar ground.

That $40 million, “or whatever money you are talking about,” is already spoken for in the budget, said Mr. Licht. “There isn’t excess money” to pay the estimated $100 million needed each year for the state’s roads and bridges, he said, adding that the budget process began in a deep hole.

Although some said that seems to contradict recent forecasts of a state budget surplus, a financial analyst for the General Assembly said the budget picture is not as rosy was some claim. “We are still faced with a large funding gap,” she said.

The commission was charged with finding workable alternatives to Sakonnet River Bridge tolls and it has found good ones, Rep. Edwards said.

Other proposals mentioned again Thursday include placing a toll on Route 95 near the Connecticut state line — it has been estimated that a $3 toll there would collect $30 million a year.

State Department of Transportation Director Michael Lewis said the state has already asked the Federal Highway Administration for permission to do that and has been rejected. Nothing, he added, “gives me any confidence that that is an option” for Rhode Island. North Carolina, he said, got the last available slot for now.

Rep. DiPalma called it “unconscionable and irresponsible” for the federal government to prevent a state from addressing its road and bridge needs in such a way.

Audience members, too, appealed to the commission to agree on an alternative to bridge tolls.

Larry Fitzmorris, Portsmouth resident and member of the Sakonnet Tolls Opposition Platform (STOP) said their studies indicate that transportation-related money that winds up in the general fund each year is actually more like $58 million.

“There is a solution: Spend the money collected in the name of transportation on transportation. … Much of the transportation-related fees and taxes in Rhode Island do not go to any part of the transportation system, but disappear into the general fund.” That money, along with other mis-directed general fund money, “should be enough to fund our roads and bridges.”

Another said that “opposition to this toll is not just in the East Bay,” pointing to a recent statewide poll that showed that Rhode Islanders oppose the bridge toll by a 57-35 percent margin (8 percent undecided).

And others called the tolls “shortsighted,” arguing that any toll money collected will be more than offset by losses in other tax revenue generated by Newport County and its tourist industry.

Any plan approved by the commission by Jan. 30 will be delivered to the state legislature which will need to act by April 30.

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