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The Sakonnet River Bridge Toll: Rhode Island’s Very Own Civil War

Monday, February 18, 2013


In order to convince cities and towns to give up additional municipal aid, East Bay delegates will have to sell that a new toll on the Sakonnet River Bridge is a "statewide" problem. It won't be easy.

When Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee proposed increasing state aid to cities and towns by $10 million dollars for the 2014 fiscal year during his annual State of the State address last month, the news was met with great enthusiasm by elected officials in municipalities across RI who have been struggling in recent years to keep up with rising pension costs, underfunded school districts, higher property taxes and decreasing revenue.

But could that money be put to better use if it went to preventing a problem that could negatively impact the entire state … before it happens?

Representative John Edwards thinks so. So does Senator Walter Felag. In fact, nearly all of the General Assembly members from the East Bay area of Rhode Island are on board.

But the problem is, the problem they’re fighting is the installation of tolls on the Sakonnet River Bridge.

And if Edwards, Felag and their colleagues are going to get their way and have the potential $10 million in addition state aid go from being spread out throughout RI to being thrown as this one particular issue, they’re going to have to convince the rest of the House and Senate that keeping the Sakonnet River Bridge toll-free is in the best interest of more than just the residents of Newport County and Aquidneck Island.

It won’t be an easy sell.

Dollars and Sense

For the past few years, Edwards and Felag have fought tooth and nail to prevent the state of Rhode Island from transferring ownership of the Sakonnet River Bridge and the Jamestown-Verrazzano Bridge from the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) to the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority (RITBA).

If approved, the RITBA would create a four-bridge system—it also runs the Newport Pell Bridge and Mount Hope Bridge—and would fund maintenance of the quartet with tolls currently collected on the Pell Bridge and new tolls on the Sakonnet.

The RIDOT estimated that the cost to maintain all four bridges would be roughly $38 million a year, $21 of which currently is in place from the Pell Bridge.

The issue, Edwards and Felag have contended, is that a new toll on that bridge would all but “kill” the area for local businesses and residents

“That whole action will be a major economic detriment to Newport country and the state,” Edwards said. “The state’s going to lose income taxes because people aren’t going to have jobs or they’re going to have less hours.They’re going to lose sales taxes because all those businesses down there aren’t going to be selling as much. They’re going to have increased unemployment costs because people are going to get laid off because of this so this whole thing is going to have a very detrimental effect on the entire state.”

Edwards concedes that the RIDOT needs to find a way to raise revenue for infrastructure repair but believes it needs to come from the entire state, not just one particular portion of its residents.

“If they put a toll on the bridge, they’re going to basically put a ‘Do not come here” sign on the Rhode Island/Massachusetts border, on Rt. 24, and they’re going to lose business,” he said.

Edwards believes that a toll would severely alter the area’s ability to attract drivers who may “shop on the island, have dinner on the island and recreate on the island” and argues that the increased cost would shift people who are currently coming from over the border in Fall River, Westport or Dartmouth to go to places and restaurants on their side of the bridge instead.

“They’ll go to other place, they’re not going to pay a toll to go over and recreate and have fun or do whatever and spend their money on the island,” he said. “With our losing income, the state as a whole is going to lose income.”

An Aggressive Agenda

Edwards, Felag and their counterparts have already submitted a number of pieces of legislation during this legislative season to halt the proposed toll.

One such bill by Edwards, 2013-H5137, would have the House of Representatives repeal Article 20 of the Fiscal Year 2013 budget, preventing the RIDOT from turning control of the Sakonnet River Bridge to the RITBA and, in doing so, would repeal the decision to impose the tolls and strip the organization’s authority to have final say in the funds collected from any potential future tolls.

Felag pitched a similar motion in the Senate and another Edwards’ initiative (2013-H 5069) would replace Chafee’s four selections for the RITBA with the following: the mayor of Newport or his/her elected designee, the Town Council president of Portsmouth or his/her elected designee, the Town Council president of Tiverton or his/her elected designee and the Town Council president of Jamestown or his/her elected designee.

Under that bill, all members with the exception of the director of transportation would have to be residents of Newport County.

With or without tolls on the Sakonnet River Bridge, however, the fact remains that the state still needs to find the money to repair and maintain its bridges and Edwards and his colleagues will never be successful in halting this new revenue stream without a plan in place to do just that.

A Rash of Ideas

Plugging a revenue gap is a main concern for those opposed to halting tolls on the Sakonnet River Bridge.

Just as they had no shortage of ideas to prevent the toll from being put in place, the East Bay delegates have no shortage of ideas in how they feel they can close the budget gap with new revenue ideas of their own.

But all involve the state as a whole pitching in and doing its part.

Senator Louis DiPalma has pitched raising the cost for Rhode Island license and registration fees $20 to make up for the gap. Senator Christopher Ottiano is floating an idea around the State House to raise the cost for speeding tickets and moving violations.

It is Edwards and Felag’s proposal that could cause the biggest debate, however.

The pair believe that the money Chafee has proposed for additional aid to all of Rhode Island’s cities and states be diverted, instead, at plugged the $10 million hole being justified as the reason for tolls on the Sakonnet River Bridge.

“In opposing tolls on the new bridge, we have always been presented with the question of how to make up revenue that would be lost if there are no tolls,” Felag said. “While we believe that the Municipal Incentive Aid program proposed by the governor has merit, we believe using the $10 million to eliminate the toll makes much more sense – for every resident and business facing added costs for getting from one part of the state to another. Taking in the tolls may be a quick revenue stream for the Bridge Authority, but it is a potential economic growth killer for this part of the state.”

Edwards believes Rhode Island’s budget is large enough that there’s no reason why money can’t be found somewhere to make up for the $10 million the tolls would bring in.

“We have an $8 billion dollar budget and I believe we have a $3.1 or $3.2 billion dollars actually comes from all of us, it’s money that we generate and we have control over,” he said. “If we can’t find $10 or $15 million somewhere in that $3 billion, then we’re just not looking hard enough.”

A Tough Sell

To get enough support for their motion to divert the proposed increase in municipal aid, Edwards, Felag and their East Bay counterparts are going to have to sell the idea that stopping the toll on the Sakonnet River Bridge is a better long-term plan than a one-time revenue increase for cash-strapped municipalities.

And with the city of Providence already expected to ask for an addition $4 or $5 million in state aid, the city of Central Falls still in receivership and cities like Woonsocket and East Providence still struggling to stay afloat, that won’t be an easy proposition.

“We only have so many dollars,” Edwards said. “We only have so many coins in the pot and we have to spend them, I feel, where they’re most needed. Now I know Providence is going to get the biggest share, they always do, they’re the biggest city, they’re the most population. I think Providence is going to get somewhere around $1.7 of that $10 million dollars and that’s going to be hard for them to not get. At the same time, what’s going to happen to Newport?”

Edwards says the Sakonnet River Bridge isn’t just a bridge for one part of the state, it’s a key part of Rhode Island’s infrastructure.

We’re a very small state so if Woonsocket needs something, we as a state have an obligation to help them,” he said. “Here we have an opportunity to keep Newport vibrant and keep our businesses right now that are starting to actually pick up again, we need to keep them increasing and not throw something in the mix that’s going to stop the growth that we’re presently experiencing.”

An Issue of Fairness?

Edwards says it’s only fair that the entire state look into ways to prevent the Sakonnet River Bridge, even if it seems like a particular municipality might not be directly affected.

“It’s a statewide problem, it needs a statewide resolution,” he said. “We all paid for the Iway. OK? We all paid to have the 95-195 connection redone. That helps Providence. It opened up a tremendous amount of land in Providence and the state paid for that. People in Newport, Tiverton, Portsmouth, Middletown, their tax dollars went to that.”

Edwards said Tiverton, in particular, is a good example of this debate because that particular town pays a lot more into the state than it gets back.

“Do we complain about it? No,” he said. “Because we look at the state as a whole. We pay our share and we get back less from the state. Providence is probably a new gainer but they can’t constantly be a net gainer. Sometimes, every city and town has to look at the state as a whole and they have to see where they fit into the picture and how they can help and this is one of those instances.”

The Counter-Argument

The problem with the proposals from the Easy Bay delegates is that, deep down, many municipalities simply can’t afford to turn down any increase in state aid.

Woonsocket Representative Lisa Baldelli-Hunt says her city is still recovering and needs every dollar it can get.

“Without question,” she said. “We have been underfunded for years, especially on the education side. And they wonder why we lose good teachers in our community. They wonder why every year we’re facing a deficit and we’re going out to bond to cover our deficits. You don’t have to be a mathematical genius to look at a budget and see the shortfall and then recognize and say ‘Geez if they were funded properly then they wouldn’t have that shortfall’.”

Baldelli-Hunt says she doesn’t blame Edwards, Felag and the other East Bay delegates for fighting for their constituents on this issue, even if it is one the people she represents might not have as much a vested interest in.

“My constituency would probably not use that bridge very often,” she said. “There may be some that use it daily, there may be some that use it occasionally but I think we’re comparing two totally different issues and I can understand. If they were looking to put a toll on Rt. 99 or Rt. 146, the Northern RI delegation would be doing the same thing so I understand where the Representatives and Senators are coming from from that area because they’re trying to protect their constituency.”

Still Too Early to Tell

A lot of variables remain in the battle over a toll on the Sakonnet River Bridge.

Because Edwards and Felag’s proposal is still in the rough beginning stage, and because all the bills the East Bay delegation has proposed on this topic are still up in the air, it may be a while before the issue of tolls on the Sakonnet River Bridge are settled.

In the meantime, the contingent acknowledges that they need to do their best to convince Rhode Island that this isn’t just a matter of one portion of the state fighting the rest of it.

It won’t be easy. Not with a $10 million dollar carrot of increased municipal aid dangling in front of some of the state’s hardest-hit cities and towns.

“Rep. Edwards is correct when he says it affects the whole state because as far as tourism, as far as the business community, as far as residents of that area it does have an effect, there’s no question,” Baldelli-Hunt said. “But does it affect us in Woonsocket as much as it does them? Obviously not. We have other issues.”

Pawtucket Mayor Donald R. Grebien says a boost in state aid is a “positive development for every community” and one he wants to see continue.

“For a financially challenged community like Pawtucket, increased local aid helps lighten the already heavy load on our taxpayers, in a city where we need to make improvements in everything from our roads to our schools and address our unfunded pension liabilities,” he said.

Grebien says that, regardless of how the Sakonnet River Bridge saga plays out, that is the most important lesson to take away from the debate.

“The bridge tolls issue appears to be the subject of various proposals that remain in an early stage very likely subject to further debate and change,” he said. “However that issue may ultimately be resolved, the trend of increasing state aid to local municipalities is one that is much needed and should be continued.”


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