Editorial: Bridging the gap

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.

Authors

2 Comments

  1. Ray Berberick said:

    To the Editors:

    First, many thanks to all of you at East Bay Newspapers for carrying the torch. We could not have had the success to this point without you.

    This saga involves massive amounts of information. The history of the deterioration of the Old Sakonnet River Bridge and when the real decision was made that it was uneconomically reparable is part of history that is not well known.

    And how that played into the removal of the toll on the Mount Hope Bridge in 1999 is another curious chapter.

    Then there was the original paperwork by RIDOT in 2001 to do the Notice of Intent (NOI) to build a new bridge in accordance with the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) standards. This led to the subsequent Environmental Impact Statement) EIS process leading to the 2003 (Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) in April 2003 and Record of Decision ROD to build a new bridge.

    During this process, Governor Carcieri heard the people and declared there would be no toll on the Sakonnet. But the undercurrent thought on how to ultimately pay for the bridge was not well known to the public. Garvee bonds were the solution at the time.

    The 2008 Blue Ribbon Panel Study was the first real public trial balloon where tolls on the Sakonnet were presented as an option to pay for a deteriorating infrastructure. Again, the general public did not have a working knowledge of the behind the scenes information and discussion on how to raise funds for infrastructure.

    in 2010, the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority (RITBA), based on work by Jacobs Engineering, made an attempt to put tolls back on the Mount Hope. This was met with massive resistance.

    Again, somewhat available to the public, but mostly unknown was the amount of debt that RIDOT and RITBA had incurred to deal with the infrastructure. It was at the December 3rd and 4th, 2012 meetings in Portsmouth and Tiverton, that the famous RIDOT “bucket charts” became known and the key point was RIDOT was paying $97 million dollars a year in debt service to do their job.

    A little known point was that Governor Carcieri asked the General Assembly for legislation to put a toll on the Sakonnet in his FY 2011 Budget to the General Assembly in February of 2010. It was only six weeks after that, that RITBA got a $50 million dollar bond issue to do maintenance on the Pell and Mount Hope.

    Not long after that, First Southwest, the bond advisor to RITBA, sent them a letter that they were concerned about the revenue stream to cover the debt service.

    It was after that when the General Assembly received the FY2013 budget in March of 2012 when the infamous Article 20 of the FY 2013 Budget introduced the concept of the East Bay Infrastructure Fund and the transfer of the Sakonnet and Mount Hope Bridges to RITBA. The language allowed RITBA the ability to place tolls if needed. Of course it was needed. But it was like grabbing smoke. And the people could not react until the budget actually passed in June of 2012.

    That is what fomented the anti-toll effort. 15 different groups helped to form the Sakonnet Tolls Opposition Platform (STOP) along with a number of Facebook page groups like No Tolls on the Sakonnet, Voters Against the Sakonnet Tolls, and Voters Against the Tolls on the Sakonnet along with a web site http://www.donttoll.com.

    The first public exchange of information hosted by the Portsmouth Business Association occurred at Scampi’s Restaurant on September 22, 2012 with several East Bay legislators present, RIDOT Director Lewis and many anti-toll advocates. It was a civilized, frank and productive session.

    Subsequent to that were the two meetings at Portsmouth and Tiverton on December 3rd and 4th of 2012 where RIDOT received massive feedback from hundreds of East Bay residents.

    Meetings with the Governor, Senator Paiva-Weed, and the Federal Delegation followed. The anti-toll groups did massive research and responded to the “re-evaluation” of the 2003 FEIS. It was these actions that led to the tri-town effort to file suit in Federal court. The three towns were Portsmouth, Tiverton and Bristol.

    East Bay Legislators first introduced legislation to nullify Article 20 of the FY 2012 Budget in the early months of the 2013 General Assembly. This spawned two bills which advocated giving even more bridges to RITBA and the introduction of the concept that we have a statewide infrastructure problem.

    Additional work by the anti-toll groups and STOP introduced the information that the region would endure disastrous business economic affects and also that the state could stand to lose as much in tax revenue as the tolls would bring in. This was “heard” by East Bay legislators and key members of the General Assembly.

    The discussion of Sakonnet tolls parlayed into the June 2012 and early July 2012 budget discussions which resulted in the 11th hour “bait and switch” and the subsequent 10 cent trailer bill along with the creation of the Infrastructure Commission.

    The work of the Infrastructure Commission led to the discovery of the real, bigger problem of the condition of the infrastructure in the State were we learned that the State had 700 some odd bridges by federal definition and 1100 total bridges of which 600 some odd were structurally deficient.

    This begat the idea that it was time to address a state wide problem with a state wide solution. But one nagging issue prevailed. It was the prospect that the tolls on the Pell may have to go up if there was no toll on the Sakonnet and no other action was taken to alleviate the budget problem that RITBA would bear with four bridges.

    This led to the creation of S 2335 and H 7432, the current “Infrastructure Bills.” The final details of these bills are being negotiated as we speak. At this time, it appears that RITBA will have the Pell and the Jamestown Bridges and keep the Pell toll at its’ current level. The Sakonnet and Mount Hope Bridges will go back to RIDOT. There will be no DMV fee increases. The State will create a dedicated Infrastructure Fund and fund it with $800 million over the next ten years. The GA has the ability to issue GO bonds in the event there is a funding shortfall.

    Credit is due to Senator Paiva-Weed and Speaker Mattiello for their courage and vision to get us to this point.

    Credit is due to Senator Daponte and Representative Gallison for their efforts as respective chairs of their Finance Committees.

    Credit is due to Senator DiPalma, Senator Ottiano and Representative Edwards as the principle architects of S 2335 Sub A and H 7432.

    Credit is due to the East Bay Newspapers and the Newport Daily News, their editors and reporters for keeping this issue on the front burner as well as the Fall River Gazette.

    And credit is due to countless individuals for engaging the East Bay Legislators in a two year dialogue to address the negative economic effects that a toll on the Sakonnet would have and for having the perseverance to translate one toll into a statewide solution to a statewide problem.

    Now all we need is Jim Garman to write a definitive history.

  2. Ray Berberick said:

    There is a few errata with dates in the above, but it tells the general story.

    The line about giving more bridges to RIDOT should be RITBA.

    The toll budget discussion years should be 2013.

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