State budget talks may decide tolls' fate


Matching bills aiming to eliminate tolls from the Sakonnet River Bridge are part of the discussion as the state House and Senate grapple with the coming year's budget.

"Since there are fiscal implications to getting rid of tolls, they (tolls) are part of the negotiations between the House and Senate finance chairs and leadership," Senator Walter Felag (Dist. 10 - Bristol, Tiverton, Warren) said Thursday.

Sen. Felag sponsored Senate bill S0020, which, like House bill HS5137 sponsored by Rep. Jay Edwards, would reverse a decision made last year transferring the bridge to control of the RI Turnpike and Bridget Authority which intends to charge tolls.

"I'm an optimistic person," Sen. Felag said.

But, "I was very disappointed that the governor didn't put this into his initial budget … And I'm even more disappointed by revenue projections that show a decrease in revenue."

He said he is startled by those numbers, given the uptick in the economy, and is taking a closer look at them "to see what is missing." He wonders, for instance, if the budget is already counting the negative impact of tolls on other revenue (such as sales tax, income tax Newport gambling etc.).

Rep. Edwards (Dist. 70-Tiverton and Portsmouth) said he remains "cautiously optimistic" that his bill will emerge from the House Finance Committee for a vote in the full House.

And if that happens, he likes chances for its success.

"I spoke to Speaker (Gordon) Fox about it Tuesday at a leadership meeting and I'll speak to him again on Friday," Rep. Edwards said Thursday. (Speaker Fox did not respond to a request for comment.)

"Believe me, he is very aware that it (bridge toll) is a big problem here … They are looking for an alternative solution — they just can't get rid of it without coming up with sustainable and predictable sources of funding," Rep. Edwards said. "There isn't anyone on that leadership team who is not fully aware that is the major issue down here."

His first needs to win approval among the 13-member House Finance Committee members, some of whom have already signed on as sponsors.

Sen. Felag said he speaks daily to Senate President Teresa Paiva-Weed. "I believe she is committed to finding an alternative source" of revenue to replace money that tolls would bring in.

"We need to come up with something to which everyone in the state contributes, not just people here," Sen. Felag said.

People that he talks to from other corners of the state are "supportive … (but) To be honest, they have their own priorities. It becomes very provincial. I am working on this every day."



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