East Bay pols, residents once again question need for tolls on Sakonnet River Bridge

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PROVIDENCE — The Special Legislative Commission on infrastructure heard an overview of the Rhode Island Bridge and Turnpike Authority's extended operational plans as well as the impassioned testimony of local lawmakers and residents along with the input of a financial expert at the second meeting of the body held Wednesday, Oct. 16, in Room 35 at the State House.

The Commission, co-chaired by East Providence pols Rep. Helio Melo and Sen. Daniel DaPonte, first received a recap from its initial gathering held last month then moved into a presentation from Buddy Croft, the executive director of RIBTA.

Mr. Croft spelled out in detail the expected need for some $400 million over the next 10 years to maintain the four-bridge (Sakonnet, Mt. Hope, Newport and Jamestown) system and the necessity of the tolls to help pay for the fixes.

"We're fortunate to have a revenue stream to maintain the bridges," said Mr. Croft.

East Bay politicians Rep. Raymond Gallison (Dist. 69 - Bristol and Portsmouth), Sen. Walter Felag (Dist. 10, Bristol, Tiverton, Warren) and Rep. Dennis Canario (Dist. 71 - Portsmouth, Little Compton and Tiverton) along with Commission member Rep. John Edwards (Dist. 70. - Portsmouth and Tiverton) each pointed to inaccuracies in the numbers and the explanations as to the need for a toll on the Sakonnet River Bridge, specifically. The attempt to toll the Sakonnet Bridge is actually what spurred the implementation of the special board.

Mr. Croft countered the argument by painting three scenarios:

1. If there is no toll implemented on Sakonnet or increase in existing tolls on Newport, RIBTA would incur a $200 million debt.

2. An increase in the Newport toll to $5 with gradual additional adjustments every three years thereafter with no Sakonnet toll would leave RIBTA with a $75 million shortfall.

3. No increase in the Newport toll and the implementation of the original Sakonnet toll would leave RIBTA with no shortfall. RITBA originally wanted to collect 75 cents each way for drivers with E-ZPass transponders purchased in Rhode Island, with a maximum daily charge of $1.50. All other drivers would have paid $3.75 each way, and those without a transponder would be sent a bill with an extra $1.50 charge added on.

Following Mr. Croft, Ed Stull, Managing Director for the FirstSouthwest financial company who specializes in toll financing, acknowledged the daunting and expensive task the state faces in funding its infrastructure.

Mr. Stull told the Commission investors prefer to see a plan where $1.50 is taken in for every $1.00 of debt incurred. He noted it takes a "delicate balance" between keeping bond market investors interested and setting the rates on tolls.

When asked whether it would be better to allow RIBTA to seek out funds or for the state to procure general obligation bonds to pay for the bridge maintenance, Mr. Stull said most states would rather have the quasi-public entity take the risk rather than have their bond rating harmed.

Sen. DaPonte questioned the math involved and Mr. Stull's assertion state's were not ultimately responsible to pay off the bonds, citing  Rhode Island's much publicized role in the 38 Studios debacle.

The floor was later turned over to the public where Reps. Gallison and Canario along with Sen. Felag each struck similar tones.

All three, in some fashion, said tolls on the Sakonnet River Bridge would lead to the loss of revenue and jobs in the East Bay and across the state.

Reps. Gallison and Canario called for the abolishment of RIBTA, consolidating it under the Department of Transportation.

Rep. Gallison also once again called for the state to look into tolling Interstate 95, a move he said he supports "101 percent."

Sen. Felag called the Sakonnet toll a "barrier" to both businesses and consumers. He also asked the Commission to implement a financial impact study to determine the effect tolls would have on the area.

Rep. Canario railed against the cost of collecting tolls, called the DOT's "substantial completion date" of the Sakonnet Bridge a "sliding scale" and said the numbers associated with the cost of maintaining the structure "change like the New England weather." He also said there's "waste" in the DOT that could help offset the need for tolls.

Ray Berberick, a member of the Portsmouth Business Association, also testified in opposition to the tolling of the Sakonnet River Bridge while suggesting the state trim the overall budget to offset any funding gap for infrastructure.

Mr. Berberick said state should give the budget a "haircut" of one percent across the board. He also said the Commission should "consider some bold initiatives" so residents don't face "more tolls, fees or taxes."

Rep. Melo countered Mr. Berberick's assertion that a one percent cut of the state's $8 billion budget would solve the problem, noting only $3 billion of that total comes directly from the state's coffers. The other $5 billion is comprised of federal funds which come with mandates.

Portsmouth resident and toll opponent John Vitkevich joined the consensus, saying tolling the Sakonnet River Bridge was "going the wrong way" economically and that an impact study was necessary. He said, however, if tolls were necessary then each of the state's four counties should have two each implemented in the sake of fairness.

He also requested the Commission think outside the box, claiming the bridge could be funded by hydro-kinetic electric generation.

The next scheduled meeting of the Special Commission on infrastructure is scheduled for Nov. 20. A website has also been created for the public to follow and contribute to the commission's effort, webserver.rilin.state.ri.us/bridgefunding/

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Michael Fairhurst

I tried to access the web site and it doesn't even work. Thank whoever pointed out that we don't need both a RIDOT and a RIBTA with all the jobs, expense and duplication to manage roads and bridges in the nation's smallest state. Combine them in to one efficient agency and direct the millions saved toward maintenance.

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