People here can be forgiven if they doubt the sincerity of the Rhode Island’s after-the fact “economic impact study” on Sakonnet River Bridge tolls. After all, the toll plan was hustled through the state budget process without study and there is no indication that planners have seriously contemplated any alternative revenue plan. But when these towns protested the lack of an impact study, they were assured that one would be done — these few poorly publicized hearings, it seems, are it.
Governor Chafee and the DOT already know what they will hear but it is important that people turn out to say it all the same. The state needs to know going in the harm a toll will do to this area’s fragile economy and to those for whom this bridge is a lifeline. For instance:
• Even a small toll would discourage people from Massachusetts from visiting Portsmouth for dinner, a clamcake or doctor appointment. This round trip $8 tax is no small toll.
• The cost of everything from groceries to lumber to heating oil will rise as suppliers look to cover their increased costs.
• Rhode Island spends big money promoting its foremost tourist destination. This toll won’t help. Not all visitors are wealthy and they have lots of nearby toll-free options for beaching (the Cape bridges are free) or shopping.
• Vehicles by the thousand will skirt this expensive bridge by driving through Barrington, Warren and Bristol to the Mt. Hope Bridge. Routes 114 and 136 are already packed beyond capacity.
• As people have said again and again, the 40,000-plus daily trips on this bridge are mostly local in nature. They are commuters from Westport heading to Raytheon, students being driven from Little Compton to Portsmouth High or from off-island to St. Phil’s. They are grandparents visiting grandchildren, dialysis patients driving to Tiverton … It is on their backs that the state aims to balance its transportation budget.
Although leaders wring their hands, they have other options, choices that would share transportation costs evenly rather than the easy route of dumping them on one small region.
There is that one penny of the gasoline tax that was diverted to other uses. 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.
What’s really going on here is that this one bridge is being used to pay for bridge and maintenance issues elsewhere While the money goes to the Turnpike and Bridge Authority, handing off responsibility for the Sakonnet River Bridge frees up the state to focus on other roads and bridges all thanks to toll dollars charged to people here. Sweet scheme for everyone else; double taxation here.
The governor and DOT have heard it all before but it bears repeating — loudly — next Monday (7 p.m., Portsmouth High) and Tuesday (7 p.m., Tiverton High).
This is the last chance to change minds.