One of the main arguments made against tolls on the new Sakonnet River Bridge — other than the negative impact on businesses and the inherent unfairness of having one region shoulder the bulk of the cost of maintaining state structures — has been that Rhode Island shouldn’t increase tolls while it lacks a funding formula for maintaining its own bridges.
Decades of piecing together maintenance funds or, worse, allowing bridges to fall into disrepair, may finally be coming to an end. The Senate Finance Committee this week approved a bill that establishes an infrastructure fund for bridge and transportation maintenance. Of particular interest to those on the East Bay and Aquidneck Island, the bill calls for no tolls to be imposed on the Sakonnet River and Mt. Hope bridges.
The infrastructure bill — which still must be passed by the full Senate and the state House of Representatives — would begin building funds in fiscal 2016, adding an amount equal to all the RI Department of Transportation debt, which would be funneled from the motor fuel tax. Beginning in fiscal 2019 and in each year going forward, $45 million of the motor fuel tax would be deposited into the infrastructure fund. The General Assembly would also reserve the right to transfer more money from the state general fund to cover shortfalls.
In a related move, the RI Turnpike and Bridge Authority voted Tuesday to delay toll increases on the Sakonnet River Bridge, scheduled to increase from 10 cents to 50 cents (EZ-Pass rate) on May 16. The infrastructure funding bill would make the increase moot, as it would eliminate tolls on all four East Bay bridges — Sakonnet and Mt. Hope, along with Newport and Jamestown Verrazano bridges.
The bill, sponsored by East Bay Sens. Louis DiPalma and Walter Felag Jr., finally overturns decades of short-sightedness on the part of RI’s elected legislators. They’ve approved millions to build the needed bridges that connect a state split in half by a large bay, but made little effort to see they remain standing, akin to buying a new car and refusing to ever change the oil.
Bridge tolls have been a temporary fix that depend on a very small percentage of the population to protect state assets. The bridges belong to all Rhode Islanders, so all Rhode Islanders should take part in their maintenance. The full Senate and House should quickly pass the infrastructure bill and end the toll battle at last.