In this past legislative session, there was not a single action taken more harmful to our local economy than the imposition of bridge tolls on the Sakonnet River Bridge in the budget for Fiscal Year 2013, passed on June 8th by a 57-15 vote in the House of Representatives.
Without question, I was unequivocally opposed to the concept and had many questions go unanswered. For a proposal with such serious potential impact to my constituents, there was little homework done by the Governor, and, if there was, it was never shared with the Legislature.
Before the House Finance Committee I was told by the Department of Transportation that the tolls were needed to relieve pressure off of the DOT, to the tune of possibly $12-15 million.
Those were the only numbers I was ever provided with. Was an economic impact study done? No.
How much revenue is anticipated from the bridge? A good question, but one apparently not good enough to be answered for the legislature voting on the proposal.
Why can’t DOT just maintain the bridges they do have, instead of letting them fall into the water? Well the answer to that question seems to be the most elusive of all. Without a doubt, I was not sold on the proposal. Furthermore, the proposal before the legislature in the budget contained some major mistakes that needed to be rectified. They weren’t.
The Department of Transportation will be moving the Sakonnet River, Newport, Mount Hope, and Jamestown Bridges into the “East Bay Bridge System,” which will allow for tolls on the Sakonnet River and Newport Bridges. Any excess toll revenue after maintenance and debt service has been paid will go into the “East Bay Infrastructure Fund,” which will be available for projects throughout Newport and Bristol Counties.
So, Bristol County, with no toll bridges, will be able to take from the fund that Newport County taxpayers are disproportionately funding. Furthermore, there are no assurances in the law that the DOT will continue to fund Newport County projects in the state Transportation Improvement Program, and not divert money to projects elsewhere since we have this other “pot of cash” which we can use.
I requested that the budget be amended to provide for these changes, and the amendments failed.
Some would say that this would seem unfair, that Newport County shouldn’t reap all of the benefits, and that, without tolls, other communities would be unfairly paying for our bridges. Of course, in a year where Aquidneck Island taxpayers helped bail out the Central Falls pensions to the tune of $2.6 million, subsidize other transportation projects throughout the state through our gas taxes, and have been paying for the entire Central Falls School District since around when I was born, other legislators and the Governor’s Office apparently have an oddly-conceived notion of “what is fair.”
I am also concerned that this funding source, if successful, will dry up when the state finds itself in a cash crunch and wants to move the revenue into the general fund. Remember the “temporary” sales tax increase to pay off the DEPCO bonds? We are still paying it.
And we paid off the DEPCO bonds years ago.
Forgive me for not exactly trusting a state government with a very poor history when it comes to “restricted receipt accounts.” This proposal also does not take into account that GARVEE funds, borrowed in anticipation of future federal highway revenue, were used to pay for the new Sakonnet River Bridge, the I-Way in Providence, and the Route 403 Connector to Quonset Point in North Kingstown among other projects.
The toll proposal does not mention at all how much of the remaining GARVEE debt, estimated at around $500 million, will be supported by the tolls on the Sakonnet River Bridge. Regardless, it is certainly taking a load off of other communities that will undoubtedly have the debt for their projects taken care of by Newport County while still enjoying the projects paid for out of the same pot of cash as ours did. For many reasons, the proposal, now passed, to place tolls on the Sakonnet River Bridge will be extremely harmful to my constituents, and that is why I voted against it in committee and on the floor, and voted for many amendments to change it.
Moving forward, I have been contacted by many constituents as to what they can do to fight this back, before 2014 when the tolls are expected to be implemented. Residents and the business community in Newport County need to stand together to put pressure on the Governor’s Office and legislative leaders to scrap this ill-conceived plan. If my constituents allow me the privilege of serving them for another term in office, I will be introducing legislation on the first day of the next session to roll back this proposal.
In a budget of more than $8 billion, we can find $15 million, if that is what is needed. The first step is for our leaders to be honest about what is needed to properly fund our infrastructure, and then craft an equitable plan to get it done.