The Governor’s recent visit to Portsmouth to discuss how the state can help businesses grow was unsurprisingly concerned mostly with the Governor’s plan to place tolls on the Sakonnet River Bridge. Unfortunately for those in attendance, I feel that the visit left us with more questions than answers. The Governor and his Director of Transportation, Michael Lewis, explained some of the reasoning behind the Governor’s decision to put tolls on the bridge, authorized by this current year’s budget. However, I am still confused as to why a statewide transportation financing problem must be solved by placing such a heavy burden on local area residents and businesses. Director Lewis stated that, without changes, the largest bridges in the area – the Jamestown, Mount Hope, and the new Sakonnet River Bridge – will cost the Department of Transportation 10% of the state DOT highway and bridge maintenance budget. However, seeing as how the four major area bridges represent roughly 20% of the state’s total bridge deck, I fail to see how this is an inequitable share of the maintenance budget.
Other questions remained unanswered, including how the “East Bay Infrastructure Fund,” funded with excess toll revenue, will not simply be an excuse for the Governor and politicians from Providence who proposed tolls in the first place to simply deprive local communities from projects that would otherwise be funded by the gas tax – which we all pay into. I find it incomprehensible that the Governor and his DOT feel it necessary to now conduct studies on economic impact and possible toll rates. In other words, he had no problem having legislators vote on a proposal with no specifics, but now wants to know more. Regardless, what is the point of studying anything at this point? The decisions on what the toll rate should be are now in the hands of the unelected board of directors of the Turnpike and Bridge Authority, which has absolutely no statutory representation for Aquidneck Island or Newport County communities. I attempted to amend the budget this year to at least provide for that – yet was provided with no explanation as to why that change could not be made.
At the end of the day, the plan to toll the Sakonnet River Bridge is incredibly inequitable when local residents will still be paying the gas tax, which supports not only the bonds used to build the new bridge but for many shiny, new projects across the state – none of which will be tolled. Newport County is again being used as the ATM for the Governor and the leadership of the General Assembly, which expects us to pay twice for the bridges we cross. A statewide transportation funding problem requires a statewide transportation funding solution. Why should we pay tolls on our bridges when our vehicle registration fees go only into the black hole known as the general fund? Vehicle registration fees, if dedicated completely to highway and bridge maintenance, would provide for an infusion worth more than $40 million each year to maintaining roads and bridges. That is more than enough to support the estimated $5-15 million needed to support the state’s largest bridges, which are located right here in Newport County. Does it not seem logical that the fees we pay to register our cars go to supporting the roads and bridges we drive our cars on? In the end, we don’t need more revenue – we need to reassess our priorities within our current budget and start to properly fund highway and bridge maintenance in the Ocean State.