Nice bridge, but …
That about sums up reactions from people we spoke to on either side of the state line about their first ride on the new Sakonnet River Bridge.
It’s a beauty, most said, with nice views, plenty of elbow room — a vast improvement over that rusted hulk still standing alongside. And it will be even better once the new bike/pedestrian lane is complete.
But almost all qualified their praise. The prospect of tolls ruins everything, they said. That smooth ride across the river is no tradeoff for paying a toll, no matter whether that toll is $4 each way, 86 cents with EZ-Pass each way, or whatever the state decides to charge.
RI Governor Chafee must realize that by now. After the northbound side opened, he and Department of Transportation leaders led a tour of the handsome bridge.
The celebratory moment was tarnished though by repeated questions of tolls. Reporters asked because they know that is what really matters to those who must drive this route.
None of it makes much sense.
As bridges go, this is not a big one — not close to the size of the Newport Bridge or those New York City bridges that charge tolls. It won’t require much maintenance for years and even then the estimated $3 million-plus annual maintenance estimate is a small fraction of what those tolls will take in.
What’s really going on here is that this one bridge is being used to pay for a host of other bridge and maintenance issues in the cash-strapped state. Although the money goes to the Turnpike and Bridge Authority, handing off responsibility for the Sakonnet River Bridge frees up the state to focus on roads and bridges elsewhere, all thanks to toll dollars charged to people here.
They have graphs and charts describing their need for money but so far neither governor nor DOT have had any answer to the fairness question. How is it right that people in one corner of Rhode Island and neighboring Massachusetts must pay dearly for their ride to work or the doctor’s office while those who use every other rebuilt road and bridge outside the county get a free ride?
The money is there — that penny in the gas tax that was diverted to the general fund years ago or that $15 million worth of ‘legislative grants’ the state doles out every year. What’s lacking is governmental ability to come up with anything more creative than what amounts to a new tax on the few.
So — great bridge, but those who drive it aren’t much in a mood to celebrate.