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Guest MINDSETTER™ Larry Fitzmorris: Put a Stop to the Sakonnet Tolls

Thursday, November 15, 2012

 

The opportunity for new revenue focuses the mind of government more closely than any other public activity. Tolling the new Sakonnet Bridge is just such an opportunity for the Governor and the Assembly and they have acted to insure that the new bridge will generate a good deal of money. The bridge, however, lies at the economic and social heart of the East Bay community and the tolls will alter the path of our lives and deliver a substantial blow to businesses in our area.

Those considerations were not a hindrance, however, when our government discovered an opportunity to impose what is nothing less than a regional tax on the East Bay. More and more, the East Bay is considered an ATM by Rhode Island Government.

The election, and its domination of public issues, is now behind us and we are approaching the new Assembly session the time for action to reverse this decision has arrived.

The state Department of Transportation (DOT) has a large repair and maintenance backlog and little funding to accomplish the task. This is due to chronic underfunding by the Assembly, re-routing of State gasoline and diesel taxes to non-transportation purposes and by the now repudiated practice of bonding out the State’s 20% matching funds used to obtain annual Federal highway funding. DOT receives $90 million from State fuel taxes and spends $50 million on payment of principal and interest on its bonds. So we get to pay a toll to correct the DOT’s lack of forethought and the Assembly’s mismanagement of the State budget.

All of this, of course, should not surprise a resident of Rhode Island. What many in the Assembly do not realize is that they may have opened Pandora’s Box. It is, after all, the TURNPIKE and Bridge Authority and any controlled access State highways, such as Routes 146, 6, 10, 1, can also be tolled. I assure all Rhode Island residents that tolls from the Sakonnet will not substantially solve DOT’s funding problem, just establish a new approach.

We needed a new bridge because the Assembly and DOT allowed the old one to rust away. The old bridge, if properly maintained would have lasted a good deal longer. Simply put, the failure by the State to dedicate sufficient funds to maintain the structure led to its failure. We are paying a toll because the State Government intentionally let the old bridge fall apart.

The Assembly passed Governor Chafee’s tolling proposal without either setting the rates or conducting an economic impact study of the effect on East Bay. What has been proposed by the Bridge Authority, but not yet approved, is the toll presently in place on the Newport Bridge: $4.00 each way for those without an EZ Pass system and for those who live out of state. For Rhode Island residents with an EZ Pass, the toll would be 83 cents. Using these rates and the DOT’s estimate of 40,000 crossings a day, we calculate that the Bridge Authority would collect about $39 million a year.

The toll proposal is also a burden shifting scheme. The toll collections will exceed by far the $5 million a year required to maintain the Sakonnet and Jamestown Bridges. The Governor and DOT Director have told us that they will use the surplus revenue on East Bay road projects. Obviously we will continue to pay the 33 cents a gallon State gas tax, but that will be used in other parts of the State.

The official purpose for the tolls is to pay for the maintenance of the new Sakonnet Bridge and the Jamestown Bridge. The idea put forward by many in the Assembly who voted for the tolls was that those that are using the bridge should pay for its replacement. That is false on its face as those who routinely use the Jamestown Bridge rarely use the Sakonnet Bridge.

The reaction among the people of East Bay, with the exception of Newport, has been very strong. The informal petition presently being collected has 26,000 signatures to date. Those in the Assembly who forced this decision upon us without our consent were counting us as sheep, but they were wrong.

The Sakonnet Tolls Opposition Panel (STOP) Committee was formed by East Bay taxpayer and business groups and also includes three State-wide reform groups. Our objective is to reverse this decision, not to reduce the level of tolling. The people in East Bay are absolutely committed to reversing this decision.

In a State budget that is nearing $9 billion, there are always options. Some of the $65 million in license and registration fees the State collects is an obvious source. $4.2 million of State fuel taxes that goes to the general fund can be rerouted to bridge maintenance. The fines that were collected on the old Sakonnet Bridge from overweight trucks, approximately $3 million, should have been used, but were not. There are also the famous legislative grants which could be better used almost anywhere else.

This will be a very steep hill to climb. Our Legislators in East Bay must be willing to risk their relationships with the House and Senate leadership, and as a consequence their legislative grants and pet projects, and vote against the budget until this decision is reversed. They must also be willing put everything they have into the new bills intended to reverse the tolls decision.

 

Larry Fitzmorris is a RISC Board member and is Chairman of STOP (Sakonnet Tolls Opposition Platform). For more information on STOP, go to www.statewidecoalition.com

 

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