Rhode Island bills would ban tolls on two bridges

| 4/11/2011

Concern about what the state will do to address a backlog of road and bridge repairs has spurred action in the Rhode Island General Assembly to make sure tolls aren’t in the offering. Two bills at the statehouse are aimed at keeping the Mount Hope and Sakonnet River bridges free for users.

With Rhode Island facing a $3 billion shortfall for transportation needs during the next decade, tolls are one option that has been mentioned in recent years to help reduce the funding gap.

Sen. Walter Felag Jr., D-Tiverton, is opposed to such action. He said the ramifications of charging tolls on the bridges would be far-reaching.

“It could have a chilling effect on the economic welfare of the whole region if it prevents tourist traffic or affects the cost of doing business for those companies that are based in these areas or that provide goods and services to these regions,” Felag said in a statement.

One bill – S54 – would forbid the state to charge tolls to cross the Mount Hope Bridge. The 81-year-old state Route 114 bridge carries about 17,700 vehicles daily.

Tolls were removed from the bridge connecting Portsmouth and Bristol in 1998. The authority removed tolls after it determined that tolls collected on the Pell Bridge would provide sufficient revenue to maintain both bridges.

The bridge connecting Jamestown to Newport is the only location in the state where tolls are collected. Bridge users pay $2 per axle.

A recent consultant report recommended that the Turnpike and Bridge Authority reinstate tolls on the Mount Hope Bridge connecting Portsmouth and Bristol. A $3-per-axle fee was recommended.

Rep. Raymond Gallison Jr, D-Bristol, questioned what has changed in the past decade to warrant the state going back on its word.

“The Turnpike and Bridge Authority needs to work harder to live within its means, just like citizens are doing these days,” Gallison stated.

The second bill – H5053 – would prohibit a toll from being charged for the replacement of the Sakonnet River Bridge. The aging bridge connecting Portsmouth to Tiverton has a weight limit that bars large trucks from crossing.

A year ago, then-Gov. Don Carcieri proposed charging tolls on the bridge.

The bill would also prohibit the transfer of the still-unfinished bridge from the state Department of Transportation to the Turnpike and Bridge Authority, which could collect tolls.

Felag said two-way tolls of $2 per axle have been proposed for the new bridge. He wants the state to pursue other options.

“All anyone seems to want to talk about is tolls, as if it is no big deal. Well, it’s a big deal,” he said.

The bills are in their respective chamber’s finance committee.

To view other legislative activities of interest for Rhode Island, click here.

Editor’s Note: Please share your thoughts with us about the legislation included in this story. Comments may be sent to statelegislativedesk@ooida.com.