Lawmakers: Tide turning against bridge toll
He is "cautiously optimistic" that a plan to kill Sakonnet River Bridge tolls will win the day, state Rep. Jay Edwards told an audience of over 120 people at Portsmouth's Common Fence Point Community Hall last Wednesday.
He and Senators Louis DiPalma and Christopher Ottiano and Rep. Ramond Gallison Jr., were there to update residents on work being done by the Special Legislative Commission to Study the Funding of East Bay Bridges (of which Edwards, DiPalma and Ottiano are members).
"If you had asked me a year ago I would have said we had probably a 40-60 chance of getting rid to tolls," said Rep. Edwards, the deputy majority leader of the House of Representatives. "Now I'd say we have a 55-45 shot." The other lawmakers agreed with that assessment.
He added that if Portsmouth succeeds in its legal case against tolls, "people might even get a refund" for tolls already paid.
The lawmakers said there are several factors behind their growing confidence that a way around tolls will be found.
"The general mood regarding tolls has changed," Mr. Edwards said, both among Rhode Islanders and his State House colleagues.
He noted a recent Providence Journal/WPRI poll that showed people in the state oppose Sakonnet River Bridge tolls by a 57-35 percent margin (8 percent undecided).
"That is significant. We already knew that people here are against the toll. But this showed strong opposition statewide," he said.
He senses the same among state representative and senators, he said. "Not all are on board but there has been a real swing against tolls."
Among the testimony the commission has heard is perspective from other places. Rep. Edwards said he found it interesting that only seven other states "have a quasi (Like the RI Turnpike and Bridge Authority) running their roads or bridges."
Also encouraging is the general condition of the state budget — there has actually been speculation about a surplus this year.
And "finally, I believe that when we've had time to look at the whole issue of state highway and bridge funding, not just this bridge, we will come up with something that will permanently fund the DOT … Everything is on the table" — fees on drivers's licenses, car inspections and gasoline taxes.
Time is short. The commission will need to come up with an alternative plan by January 30. The legislature would then have to approve that plan by April 30 — "that's light speed by legislative standards."
The lawmakers also told the audience that it is important for people to keep the pressure on as the process enters its final phases.