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Toll and Infrastructure Debate Begins at State House

Strong support for bill that would block tolls, fund $1 billion in infrastructure over 10-years, but DOT chief warns that without extra revenue, there will be a price to pay.

DOT Director Michael Lewis warned legislators about the impact on the state budget as a whole at a Thursday Senate Finance Committee hearing (Photo via Captiol TV)
DOT Director Michael Lewis warned legislators about the impact on the state budget as a whole at a Thursday Senate Finance Committee hearing (Photo via Captiol TV)
A bill that would prevent tolls on the Sakonnet River Bridge and establish a $1 billion infrastructure fund over 10 years to start fixing the state's ailing roads and bridges got strong support as debate opened at a Senate Finance Committee hearing Thursday night at the State House.

But one notable voice of opposition was from the head of the state Department of Transportation, Michael Lewis, who said that the bill is creative and forward-thinking, but "there is no free lunch."

Because the bill suggests creating the fund through existing revenues, and with no tolls collected on the Sakonnet River Bridge, Lewis said the administration has concerns about "moving this forward without negative effects on the rest of the state."

"Every community has bridges that are structurally deficient," Lewis said, noting the state would be in a position to decide "what services will not be performed if that money goes into the transportation fund."

Rep. John G. Edwards (D-Dist. 70, Portsmouth, Tiverton), one of the bill's architects in the House, countered by saying the state can't wait to start funding its ailing infrastructure and the concern about diverting revenue doesn't take into account the fact that investment in roads and bridges creates jobs and would usher in economic development and growth.

"If we do not spend our money now, if we do not fix our infrastructure, all other parts of the budget will be wanting," Edwards said, noting if people can't go to the beach, the state Department of Environmental Management will see less revenue.

"You cant get to RIC, to URI, any of our state institutions without roads and bridges. We have been working hard as a General Assembly to bring more jobs and industry and employment into the state of Rhode Island and that is not going to happen unless we have reliable infrastructure."

Edwards said of the $1 billion over 10 years, $600 million would be spent in labor. That means 1,300 new jobs in Rhode Island with new jobs every year as the fund grows. And with some estimates pegging the return on investment at 1.8 jobs resulting from every 1 construction job created, the net result is "people who pay rent, pay their mortgage, buy food, pay their car loans, put money back into the Rhode Island economy."

"We will reap the income tax, sales taxes, and all the other revenue from our own money," Edwards said.

Though most East Bay residents support the bill for the primary reason that it would block tolls on the Sakonnet River Bridge, Finance Committee member Sen. Walter S. Felag Jr. (D-Dist. 10, Bristol, Tiverton, Warren) said the bill and its implications have to be viewed through a statewide lens.

Although the impetus for the bill stemmed from last year's hotly contested debate about bridge tolls, the critical need to fix the state's infrastructure is what is really at stake, Felag said.

"I can't stress it enough," he said. "Whether tolls are put in or not, the issue doesn't go away. The issue needs to be addressed and it has to be addressed now."

The bills, submitted last month, would create a transportation infrastructure fund by shaving a portion of the state's overall transportation fund and diverting it into the new fund, among other sources.

By 2020, the fund would absorb all gas taxes. In the short term, the fund would get money from a 5 percent surcharge in Department of Motor Vehicle Fees starting in 2015 but would be phased out by 2020.

Along with being reserved for the maintenance of state roads and bridges, the legislation would transfer authority of the Sakonnet River Bridge and Jamestown Bridge from the Rhode Island Bridge and Turnpike Authority to the state under the auspices of a new authority in the state Department of Transportation. That authority would only be able to collect tolls on the Claiborne Pell Bridge.

The bill also provides a mechanism to give the Rhode Island Public Transportation Authority extra funds through a .1 percent reallocation from the state capital plan fund to RIPTA starting in 2015. That would increase by one tenth of one percent until it gets to .5 percent.

Abel Collins, program director for the Sierra Club of Rhode Island testified that it's encouraging to see RIPTA "getting the importance it deserves" but said the bill should be adjusted to ensure monies support both RIPTA's operations and expansions.

"Transportation in Rhode Island as a whole needs a lot of work," Collins said. "We want to be thinking ahead and RIPTA has a strategic plan for expanding service and I want to make sure RIPTA has enough funds to expand."

Linda Finn (D-Dist. 72, Middletown, Portsmouth), said while it's true that the issue runs statewide, she urged her colleagues to think about the thousands of people who would be affected by tolls, many who wrote letters and testified in at-times emotional hearings last year.

She noted a man who told lawmakers that he doesn't live on the island but works there and a toll would boil down to a 50 percent increase in his taxes. He and his wife are forced to take separate cars and He paid $2,000 in taxes to the state last year. With a $40 per month E-Z Pass, he'd be paying much more to the state in the end.

The suggestion is that residents of East Bay would be shouldering the burden for a problem that affects the entire state. People who sometimes don't make much money but work on the island and have to travel every day. Or, Finn said, the company that estimated it would cost them $48,000 per year for their off-island employees.

"I just hope that when making a decision about what's going to happen with this particular bill, we think about the individual businesses and family members on the island," she said.
Iron Man March 12, 2014 at 01:40 PM
B/Stock, are you aware that the current .10 toll is only a "placeholder"? If this bill isn't passed, the tolls will go up to as much as $5 or more per crossing. Even residents of Barry wouldn't like that. If you think tolling is fair, remember there are bridges in your town too.
B/STOCK March 12, 2014 at 03:08 PM
Naturally I know the toll would not remain at .10. The original toll for RI residents with transponders was going to be around .75 cents. Please don't try to scare Rhode Islanders with the $5. figure. If the original toll is put in place you can go back and forth over the bridge for 24 hours for less $ that a small Dunkin Donut coffee. Very rarely have I ever thought the state did enough to accommodate its citizens but in this case I think it did. Free transponders, only one toll charge each way per 24 hours. For people who choose not get transponders the toll will be high. Can't fix stupid. Also the bridges in Barrington are little puddle jumpers. We in Barrington also get little school aid etc. because we are supposed to be a wealthy community. I don't think that's fair because the more $$ you make the more state income taxes you pay and the more you spend on goods and services that are subject to state sales tax. I chose to live in Barry so it is what it is. Aquidneck Island seems to be a very nice place to live. Most of what I see of it is really beautiful. I think instead of protesting at the bridge site islanders would be better served rallying at the state house to oppose the waste and fraud in government. I am not even opposed to changing to toll to .25 for EZpass users whose cars are registered on the island. Tolls really don't stop business or recreation traffic. When I go to NH the first thing I see after Welcome to NH is toll ahead. Doesn't stop people from going to NH. Ideally the toll should have been on RT95 in Hopkinton. The feds would not allow it though.
FYI March 24, 2014 at 04:26 PM
I say we put a 50 cent toll on a bridge in EVERY town in RI & see how THAT fairs!! I hope THIS happens & then I'll be glad to pay my $$ to cross the Sakonnet River Bridge!!!! "Can't fix stupid." I also say we all write letters to the president to tell how it IS federally ILLEGAL to toll the Sakonnet River Bridge & make a law that state legislators HAVE to visit the top 5 lowest unemployment states to see what they are doing and choose at least 6 strategies to implement in the top highest unemployment states. But this would take smarts & innovation!! Remember it's who you know & not what you know! Non-government voted officials spending tax $$, only in RI!!!!
FYI March 24, 2014 at 04:51 PM
PS "There's no free lunch" because the transponder was NOT free!! Get your "facts" right!

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