Rhode Island extends Sakonnet Bridge tolls; long-term alternative sought

By Keith Goble, Land Line state legislative editor | 4/7/2014

The Rhode Island General Assembly approved a bill that would continue the 10-cent toll on the Sakonnet River Bridge for a little while longer to buy lawmakers some time to come up with another funding option. It became law without Gov. Lincoln Chafee’s signature.

Rep. John Edwards, D-Tiverton, said the toll extension would give lawmakers time to “create a predictable statewide funding source” for roads and bridges without relying on tolling the new state Route 138 crossing.

A year ago the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority pushed for a 75-cent toll for motorists living in the state with E-ZPass. Commuters without E-ZPass would be responsible for paying $5.25. Plans called for truckers to pay $2 per axle, or $1.88 with a state-issued E-ZPass.

The Legislature, however, wanted to come up with an alternative plan to cover the nearly $1 million a year in operating costs.

House and Senate lawmakers voted last July to buy themselves some time and impose a 10-cent toll for all users of the bridge connecting Portsmouth and Tiverton. The tax cap was set to end April 1.

The bill, H7569, extends the dime rate to cross the bridge until May 15. He said the extension would give lawmakers time to approve a plan to get rid of tolls.

“RITBA has agreed to our extension, and this measure will give us more time to do what we told our residents we would do: fully analyze every viable alternative to this toll,” Edwards stated.

A long-term plan under review at the statehouse would prohibit tolls and turn over control of the bridge from the Turnpike and Bridge Authority to the state Department of Transportation.

However, tolls could continue to be collected on the Claiborne Pell Bridge.

The transportation proposal – H7432 and S2335 – would create a new Infrastructure Trust Fund using existing revenue to maintain state-controlled roads and bridges. In addition, a 5 percent surcharge would be applied to Department of Motor Vehicle fees through 2019.

Sen. Louis DiPalma, D-Middletown, told the Senate Finance Committee  it would help the state address a $1 billion need for transportation revenue over 10 years.

“It addresses a statewide issue. It obviates any need to toll the Sakonnet River Bridge, the Mount Hope Bridge and the Jamestown-Verrazzano Bridge. It also obviates any need for a toll increase on the Claiborne Pell Bridge,” DiPalma testified.

One more effort under review at the statehouse is intended to improve safety on the Pell Bridge. Specifically, HR7760 calls for the construction of a median barrier on the span.

Supporters say that something needs to be done following three fatal head-on collisions in 27 months.

“It’s a common-sense improvement that will cut down on innocent lives being lost,” stated Rep. Deborah Ruggiero, D-Jamestown.

The resolution also asks the RITBA and the State Police to work together to rigorously enforce the 40-mph speed limit on the bridge, as well as laws prohibiting distracted driving.

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