Bridge toll: Just an expedient bad idea

To the editor:

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse:
I am only one man with one vote, however I hope the concerns I share with you will have some weight in convincing you that tolling the Sakonnet Bridge, in any amount, is unreasonable and unnecessary, would be
patently unfair and injurious to the residents and business owners of the East Bay, and will ultimately prove not to be the answer to the state’s shortfall in funding maintenance needs of our 3,000-plus miles of roads and 800 bridges. It is, I fear, a wrongheaded and counter productive expediency.

I am retired. I do not have a business. I live in Bristol and use the Sakonnet as a more direct and convenient route to Route 24.  I can just as easily take Metacom Avenue to Route 103 to Route 24.  Should the Sakonnet be tolled, I would simply become one of many current bridge users to choose the optional route with only slight inconvenience. I am sure there will be many thousands of other regular users of the Sakonnet who will opt for the 136/103 alternate route onto and off Aquidneck  Island via the Mount Hope Bridge to save the cost of tolls. Many thousands of others will simply choose to eat and shop on one side of the Sakonnet Bridge or the other.

My sense is that Rhode Island’s loss will be Massachusetts’ gain – again.  Will we ever learn to be competitive and stop benefitting our neighbor state to the north by our shortsighted approach to problem solving?

I strongly recommend that Article 20 of the 2013 budget legislation be repealed. Responsibility for operating and maintaining the Sakonnet and Jamestown Bridges, as with the infrastructure of all other roads and bridges in the state, should remain with the RI Department of  Transportation. It ought not be transferred to the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority (RITBA).

Any plans to toll the Sakonnet Bridge should be permanently shelved.

Both the Sakonnet and Jamestown Bridges are new. They were built with state-of-the-art low maintenance metal coating and concrete technologies. Costs to  maintain them for the foreseeable future should be very manageable and requires effective executive branch budget prioritization and allocation. New revenue from these bridges is not essential for RITBA to continue to properly, efficiently and effectively operate and maintain the Pell and Mount Hope Bridges. The Sakonnet is much more of local commuter bridge. Comparing it with the Pell Bridge is not an apple to apple comparison.

Tolls will have a significantly adverse economic impact on residents and business owners of the entire East Bay.  I suspect that the environmental, economic and social  impact statement report due to be submitted this month to Mr. Berman of the Federal Highway Administration will be seriously deficient. We all must trust that Mr. Berman will be an honest broker when conducting his review and will hopefully agree and find it seriously deficient and take appropriate decisive action.

I attended RIDOT’s meetings on December 3 and 4 in Portsmouth and Tiverton, along with other briefings.  At the two informational meetings conducted by Mr. Lewis, the consultant conducting the traffic analysis portion of the of the environmental, economic and social impact study, actually stated that little thought was given to traffic impact on routes 114 and 136 through Bristol County that would result from tolling —he deemed it to be insignificant. His cavalier dismissal of an obvious concern by the hundreds of residents attending both meetings regarding economic impact to the East Bay region was shocking to say the least and raised immediate substantial doubts about the credibility, comprehensiveness and, indeed, the integrity
of the study being done.

At these meetings it was also brought to the attention of Mr. Lewis and the consultants that far too many local business owners on Aquidneck Island, Tiverton, Little Compton and into Massachusetts were never surveyed regarding the likely economic impact of tolls.  This is a second major deficiency.

A third major deficiency is that apparently no business owners were ever surveyed in Bristol County. Ostensibly, this glaring omission was due in large part to the fact that the consultants had already concluded that tolling would have no significant impact on the Bristol County side of the Mount Hope Bridge. Thus, why spend time and effort seeking input from folks from Bristol, Warren, Barrington, Touisset, etc? These deficiencies are huge omissions that undermine the validity and integrity of the entire report.

Maintenance of the state’s roads and bridges is a state responsibility. Funding them is a statewide obligation. Raising the revenues for these essential costs is a matter for the general assembly and the governor through the taxing power and budgetary process. The extent to which the RIDOT does or does not have sufficient funds to do its job seems to be more of a budget allocation and prioritization matter for RIDOT management. As with our federal government, I subscribe to the view that Rhode Island has a spending allocation and prioritization problem more than a revenue problem.

As I mentioned earlier, there will be a significant drop in passages over the Sakonnet if it is tolled. The extent of this will depend largely on the amount of tolls set. If amounts parallel those charged on the Pell Bridge, ($.83 for local users and $4 for non-local users) the economic impact will be immediate, significant and adverse for residents and business owners.  It is unfair and I believe counter-productive to the state’s short and long-term financial interests to impose only on a segment of the state’s population a funding burden that rightly should be shouldered by the entire population in as equitable a manner as possible.

I hope you will agree that Article 20 should be repealed and that tolling the Sakonnet is just an expedient bad idea.
Peter A. Hewett
Bristol

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