Most praise anti-toll bill; DOT decries lack of new revenue
A bill meant to prevent Sakonnet River Bridge tolls while providing a reliable funding source for all state roads and bridges debuted to a mostly warm welcome before the Senate Finance Committee Thursday evening.
Some two dozen people testified on behalf of the infrastructure trust fund bill that had been crafted by a study commission and introduced by Senator Louis DiPalma and Rep. Jay Edwards (House version).
East Bay lawmakers applauded the bill, as did advocates for public transit, the environment and clean air, the Newport County Chamber of Commerce, Portsmouth Business Association, and contractors' associations.
Only state Department of Transportation Director Michael Lewis spoke against the billion dollar funding plan.
While "I applaud the creativity" of those who designed it, Mr. Lewis said, he and the (Chafee) administration have studied it and are concerned about how little of the money comes from new revenue.
"There is no free lunch," Mr. Lewis said. "That money has to come from other areas … Something else has to give … We are concerned that we will not see this come to fruition because of all the other demands for state services."
That drew an angry retort from Portsmouth Representative Dennis Canario.
Early in the study commissions meetings, the group prodded Mr. Lewis "for a number" — an amount of money needed to maintain roads and bridges for the coming decade.
"Now all of a sudden the director has problems with it … It seems to me that the DOT has one train of thought — tolling and more revenue," Rep. Canario said. "No matter what we come up with it will not be satisfactory to DOT."
To Mr. Lewis's concern that the transportation bill draws money from other state services, Mr. DiPalma noted that the Chafee administration has done the same for education — $100 million over four years with no new taxes or fees to pay for it. That money was drawn from other things, he said. It's "the right thing to do" but transportation needs the same emphasis.
Sen. DiPalma opened the hearing with a rundown of the bill.
It would provide about $1 billion for all states and roads for the next decade from a number of sources, among them:
• Nearly half would come from dedicating 1.5 percent of state revenue (phased in over six years) to a roads and bridges trust fund.
• As DOT debt is paid down, money that had gone to that debt would also be placed in the fund.
• If the state is allowed to collect sales tax on internet purchases, thus cutting the state sales tax to 6.5 percent, that new sales tax rate would be bumped up to 6.625 percent with the extra dedicated to roads and bridges.
• The only "new" revenue would come from a 5 percent surcharge on all motor vehicles fees, a charge that would be limited to five years.
• The bill would eliminate the RI Turnpike and Bridge Authority except as an agency to toll the Newport Bridge, and would place RITBA within the DOT.
"I think we have a way forward" for all of the state's road and bridge needs," Sen. DiPalma said. "This was a team effort — full contact — to get there."
You (Mr. Lewis) and the administration have stressed to us "that we have a statewide issue and we now have a real statewide solution," said Sen. Walter Felag. He urged Mr. Lewis and Gov. Chafee to study the bill, offer suggestions and bring something to the table.
Rep. Edwards said that, "Rhode Island has numerous wants but few real needs. Our infrastructure is a need." Without safe bridges and roads, people can't get to the beach, can't get to URI, can't go out to dinner.
He added that some $600,000 of the transportation bill would be spent on labor — "good construction jobs" — and also provides benefits in increased sales and income tax revenue.
"What started as a discussion of this toll turned into a broader discussion about our state's infrastructure," said Sen. Christopher Ottiano. "A toll, as you all know, is a stopgap, quick and easy" but not accomplishing much. "Kudos to leadership … We are actually thinking ahead."
But a toll, Mr. Lewis replied "is an arrow in the quiver. We have a very limited set of options."
"Your biggest concern is that you'll have no use for your bucket charts," said Mr. DiPalma laughed — referring to the revenue bucket images in Powerpoint presentations by Mr. Lewis at every toll hearing.
Ray Berberick, chairman of the Portsmouth Economic Development Committee, said that if the toll plan was enabled, the four East Bay bridges "would be in immaculate condition" but the rest of the state's roads and bridges would continue to crumble.
"You are literally putting a billion dollars back into the economy," he said, adding that he believes other states "would use this as a model."
Several speakers praised the measure for providing money for public transportation through the RI Public Transit Authority (RIPTA). But most urged that even more be spent on buses and worried that the RIPTA money might get eliminated from the package.
The toll plan, "a bad idea, has bred a state-wide solution," said Larry Fitzmorris of Portsmouth Concerned Citizens. "In the scheme of things there are times to act and when you don't take the opportunity it doesn't come back again."