Rhode Island bills would ban tolls on two bridges

By Keith Goble, Land Line state legislative editor | Thursday, February 23, 2012

Some Rhode Island lawmakers are trying to make sure tolls are not relied on to bolster funding of road and bridge repairs in the state. Two bills at the statehouse would prevent fees from being charged to cross the Mount Hope and Sakonnet River bridges.

With the state facing what has been projected as 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. Legislative approval is necessary to move forward with any toll plans.

The lawmakers say they don’t want their constituents forced to pay to travel to another part of the state.

Rep. Raymond Gallison Jr, D-Bristol, said he wants to send a message to the state’s Turnpike and Bridge Authority that any request it may make for tolls on the bridges is going to be met with stiff opposition at the statehouse.

“If they try to put in these tolls, we will fight them tooth and nail on behalf of our constituents,” Gallison said in a statement.

Sen. Walter Felag Jr, D-Tiverton, is also opposed to tolls. He said the ramifications of charging East Bay residents and Aquidneck Islanders tolls on the bridges would be far-reaching.

“(They) are already struggling, and taxing them every time they leave the area is just going to mean fewer people and businesses will be able to afford to stay here,” Felag stated. “More tolls are going to hurt the economy right now.”

The first measure – H7130/S2092 – would forbid the state to charge tolls to cross the Mount Hope Bridge. The 82-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.

Instead of relying on locals to help bail them out, Felag said the Turnpike and Bridge Authority needs to work harder to live within its means.

The second effort – H7036/S2093 – would prohibit a toll from being charged for the replacement of the Sakonnet River Bridge. The new $163.7 million bridge is expected to be open for all traffic by the summer.

The existing bridge connecting Portsmouth to Tiverton has an 18-ton weight limit.

The bill would also prohibit the transfer of the new bridge from the state Department of Transportation to the Turnpike and Bridge Authority, which could collect tolls with legislative approval.

In fact, Rep. Richard Morrison, D-Bristol, offered a bill that would dissolve the quasi-public authority. H7457 calls for all its duties and functions to be transferred to the Rhode Island Department of Transportation in a new Turnpike and Bridge Division.

“The Turnpike and Bridge Authority is just, in my opinion, another layer of government that doesn’t need to exist,” stated Morrison, who is a co-sponsor on the bills to prevent bridge tolls.

He also noted that it is possible that by eliminating the authority and placing its functions within the state DOT, the resulting efficiencies “might eliminate the need to place tolls on the bridges, or raise the toll prices.”

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

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

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