Chafee: Bridge tolls will be a business killer

If they were really listening Thursday, Gov. Lincoln Chafee and DOT Director Michael Lewis must have left Portsmouth with second thoughts about their bridge toll scheme.
They heard anger and and frustration with a plan that aims to fund the cash-strapped state bridge system on the backs of families, businesses and workers in just one corner of Rhode Island.
They heard compelling testimony on the damage this toll will do to struggling businesses — harm that could well wind up costing the state more than any toll will deliver.
And they heard common sense alternatives to the toll that could deliver all of the money the new Sakonnet River Bridge needs for maintenance and then some.
But other than some sympathetic hand wringing and promises to study it all after the fact, the governor and DOT chief left town with no hint that anything will change.
The morning session packed Portsmouth Town Hall and parking lot with worried business owners and residents of nearby towns (Massachusetts commuters were well represented too) who had come to finally hear what the governor had to say about this toll. He had promoted this meeting as an opportunity to help small businesses after all, and that bridge toll tops the list of business concerns at the moment.
But no sooner did the questions begin than the governor stepped back and let Mr. Lewis take the flak and do the talking.
With all due respect to the DOT director, it was the governor people had come to hear. It was Mr. Chafee’s budget that precipitated this toll, he has supported the toll all along, and he — not Mr. Lewis — has the power to stop it.
And people here have heard Mr. Lewis’ toll rationale before. They’ve heard all about DOT’s budget woes, about how maintenance of the last Sakonnet River Bridge was ignored, and about how there’s no way to find the money other than via this toll.
The money is there though — what is lacking is willingness by governor and legislature to look beyond the easy route of taxing one small group.
There is that one penny of the gasoline tax that was diverted to other uses. By one speaker’s account, it could provide $5 million a year — $2 million more than the Sakonnet River Bridge maintenance will cost. And there is the $15 million worth of “legislative grants” — that bacon given to legislators to bring home and dole out as they choose.
As it turns out there are alternatives to tolls — good ones that require all to share the burden of state roads and bridges.
Gov. Chafee says that only by helping small business thrive can Rhode Island emerge from its misery. This is his chance.
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