Editor’s note: This letter from the Sakonnet Tolls Opposition Platform (STOP) Committee was presented to Special Legislative Commission on Tolls at its meeting at the State House Thursday.
To the editor:
The Commission to Study the Funding for East Bay Bridges and the state’s transportation system is nearing the end of its session and is preparing its report to the Assembly. The STOP Committee respectfully submits the following suggested solutions. We believe that the time has come to make solid proposals on ending the toll on the Sakonnet River Bridge and addressing Rhode Island’s huge transportation system repair requirements.
There is a solution: Spend the monies collected in the name of transportation on transportation, and fund the remainder from the general fund. The cost to the general fund should be reduced by consolidation of existing transportation agencies.
At a recent meeting of the special legislative commission, Department of Administration Director Richard Licht made an interesting comment. He remarked that the transportation network is a primary obligation of state government, but unlike other primary requirements is expected to be self funding. He suggested that it is appropriate to fund the maintenance and construction of the network from general funds. We agree; state funding for other basic needs, such as education, the courts and others are routinely funded from general revenues and transportation should not be an exception.
As it turns out, while all of the fuel taxes go to transportation, much of the transportation-related fees and taxes in Rhode Island do not go to any part of the transportation system, but disappear into the general fund.
A recent study by commission member Sen. Louis DiPalma listed all the 2013 revenue sources above $200,000. Transportation revenues (other than from the fuel tax) totaled $72.3 million.
While some of that revenue goes to transportation, most does not. It appears, when FY 2014 surcharges for transportation bond payments and a 10 percent overhead are deducted, approximately $58 million is collected annually in the name of transportation, but spent elsewhere.
According to Fox Business News, drivers in Rhode Island pay an average of $1,717 a year in automobile taxes and fees. The STOP Committee believes that that is more than sufficient to support an efficient and properly maintained transportation system.
The revenue collected from emission inspections, sales of vanity license plates and overweight vehicle fees, to name a few, are justified by the impact of those activities upon the transportation network. Shouldn’t those fees go to maintain the system?
The Turnpike and Bridge Authority shortfall is approximately $21 million a year, without Sakonnet toll revenue. The Department of Transportation’s 2015 funding shortfall is projected by the department to be approximately $146 million. Taken at face value, that is a total of about $167 million. When the $58 million from the transportation related revenue used in the general fund is subtracted, a general fund obligation is approximately $109 million. This is a large sum, and reflects the size of the transportation problem in Rhode Island.
The total required from the general fund should be reduced by seeking new efficiencies in transportation management. The Turnpike and Bridge Authority has outlived its intended purpose and should be absorbed into the Department of Transportation. Duplication of management staff is unnecessary as the Newport Bridge has been paid off and the existing operations are entirely maintenance and repair.
The money now collected for transportation, combined with money in the general fund that is supposed to be spent on all public services, should be enough to fund our roads and bridges.
If we impose new fees, what guarantee do we have that those revenues will actually go to transportation? Budget discipline has not to date been employed to ensure an adequate level of transportation funding. We have a transportation system that is ranked among the nation’s worst in the condition of its roads and bridges. We also have a high-cost system in which we spend 2.4 times the national average per mile on our system.
It is time that Rhode Island government applied a little discipline to its budget and started doing what a government is paid to do with its revenue.
Vice chairman, STOP Committee