East Bay road trip brings anti-toll voice to Senate
STATE HOUSE — Tracy Anthony has few illusion about what will happen to the 30 percent of her family's Clements Marketplace customers who travel from the Tiverton direction to shop at the Portsmouth supermarket if bridge tolls are enacted.
"There is no way they will pay a toll to shop at my store," she told the Senate Finance Committee Wednesday evening.
Just as worrisome, she said, is the expectation that she will lose many of the 40 percent of her workers who commute across the bridge.
"Many part-timers have told me they will be forced to find another job."
For more than three hours, business owners and individuals rose to support a pair of Senate bills meant to block the proposed bridge toll being pushed by the Chafee administration and Rhode Island Department of Transportation.
Some came together by bus from Middletown, Portsmouth and Tiverton. By the time the hearing began after a delay of well over an hour, the hearing room was packed with people peering in the doorways and sitting on the floor. Others watched a live television feed in an adjoining room.
The bills' authors, Sen. Walter Felag Jr. and Sen. Louis DiPalma, both of whom are members of the Finance Committee, say they have found other revenue sources that would more than make up for revenue lost if the Sakonnet River Bridge toll plan is killed. And both say their plans are more fair because they spread the burden among all in Rhode Island.
The Felag bill would repeal the 2013 state budget article that places control of all four East Bay bridges (Sakonnet, Mount Hope, Pell and Jamestown) under the control of the RI Turnpike and Bridge Authority. While he said he believes RITBA does a good job with the two bridges it now has, he objects to the plan because the agency's only revenue source is tolling.
"A toll is a barrier," Sen. Felag said. "It says 'Stay away.'"
That, he added, will hurt business and cut into state tax revenue.
He added that the plan amounts to an immediate tax of nearly $50 because, in addition to tolls, it will force every person who lives here to buy a $21 transponder and maintain a $25 EZPass balance.
He indicated one immediate revenue source that he said would make up half of the difference.
Article 11 in the governor's budget includes $10 million to be doled out to communities as a reward for properly maintaining their pension funds, "something they should be doing anyway."
Sen. DiPalma also identified available revenue sources. His bill would boost the fee for vehicle inspections by $20 every two years. That $20 would be the rough equivalent of just 13 round trips across the bridge at the EZPass rate, he said. His bill would transfer money from Motor Vehicles Dept. fees that now go to the general fund and earmark them or bridge and highway maintenance instead. He said this could produce enough money to eventually get rid of the Newport Pell Bridge toll altogether.
Also voicing support for the measures were Tiverton Senator Christopher Ottiano and Reps. John Edwards and Dennis Canario.
Mr. Edwards called tolls "grossly unfair" to East Bay and Southeastern Massachusetts communities and "devastating" to the economy of Newport County.
Before leaving the hearing early on, Senate President Theresa Paiva Weed said she, too, is against tolling the Sakonnet River Bridge but asked all speakers to think about whether they instead support a toll on the Mount Hope Bridge or boosting the toll on the Newport Pell Bridge.
The list of people who signed up to speak filled nearly four pages.
Pete Hewett of Bristol said, "The beauty of the bills is that they share the responsibility. It should not be dumped on a small segment of the state." He told of the owner of Portsmouth's 15 Point Road Restaurant who said that tolling "will kill his business."
Tiverton's Rob Coulter criticized tolls and the process.
The economic impact study was recently sent by the state to Washington without any opportunity for people here to look at it. "We have not been listened to."
And he said that many people living on the edge in Tiverton won't be able to afford a transponder and the lower toll rate it brings. He added that a toll will separate mental health patients, veterans and others from the care and services they need.
Peter Roberts, a disabled veteran living in Island Park, said that he and many of his neighbors have no extra money to spare for tolls. And he said Island Park businesses will be slammed.
"Seventy five percent of the vehicles you see visiting Island Park have Massachusetts plates. They will go to Horseneck Beach" and other places instead. "Those people lining up for clambakes at Flo's — Most of them are from Massachusetts."
Dennis Klodner, owner of DePaul Diesel Service, said he constantly sends vehicles across the bridge to service marine diesel engines on either side of the river.
"These proposals," he said of the two bills, offer "real common sense that you don't see coming out of the Senate very often."
Martin VanHof of Tiverton, owner of Island Garden Shop in Portsmouth, said he and his business will be hit hard.
"The direct cost for me if the tolls are similar to the Newport Bridge will be $2,200 per year as I drive a large pickup that will not qualify for discounted tolls … "The fact that my out-of-state customers will be required to pay $8 to visit my Garden Center in Portsmouth will mean the loss of all that business."
Ryan Raposa, co-owner of Portsmouth's Green Valley Country Club said that his club is already seeing a decline in enrollment due to tolls — even before the tolls are put into place.
Portsmouth's Larry Fitzmorris lugged binders to the table carrying in excess of 31,000 signatures on an anti-toll petition. There is "unprecedented opposition" to tolls in these towns, he said. "I've never seen anything like it." He said they could have gotten more names, but 30,000 seemed like plenty.
He also warned that already congested Metacom Avenue through Bristol and Warren will become a "parking lot" as people drive that way to avoid tolls.
Bill Clark, director of business development in Portsmouth, said tolls would cause serious damage to the area's economy by creating "a barrier that doesn’t exist today."
Ray Berberick, leader of the Portsmouth Business Association, cited figures that he said indicate that any toll revenues will be almost equally offset by the loss of state revenue from sales, income and other taxes.
"I am concerned that this was not part of the economic impact study," a study that concluded that economic impact would be "minimal."
"WE fervently disagree."