Dozens of residents from across the East Bay united in opposition on Wednesday against the installation of a toll on the Sakonnet River Bridge, warning lawmakers that it would crush small businesses and divide a close-knit community.
The hearing before the Senate Finance Committee focused more than five hours of testimony on two pending bills.
The first bill, RI Senate Bill 20, would repeal the transfer of the Sakonnet River and Jamestown-Verrazzano bridges from the state Department of Transportation to the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority. Introduced by Sen. Walter S. Felag (D-Dist. 10), it is cosigned by Sen. M. Teresa Paiva Weed (D-Dist. 13), Sen. Christopher S. Ottiano (R-Dist. 11), Sen. David E. Bates (R-Dist. 32) and and Sen. Louis P. Dipalma (D-Dist. 12).
The second bill, RI Senate Bill 242, would allow for the transfer, but block tolling and instead make up the funding shortfall by creating a bridge maintenance fund by adding a $20 surcharge to vehicle inspections fees. This bill was introduced by Sen. DiPalma and cosigned by senators Paiva Weed, Ottiano, Bates and Felag.
Without a toll, the RITBA will be $17 million short on its maintenance tab annually. Under DiPalma's plan to increase inspection fees, enough revenue would be made up to freeze the Newport Pell Bride toll and prohibit tolls on the Sakonnet River Bridge, Mt. Hope Bridge and Jamestown-Verrazzano Bridge.
"Without a toll, we also know what would happen - the old bridge was neglected, it went into disrepair and we had to buy a new bridge," said DiPalma. "We cannot let that happen again."
DiPalma said his bill offers a viable alternative revenue stream to the tolls that would balance the costs across the entire state - not just saddle the East Bay residents with the bill.
On Wednesday night, residents, local business owners and politicians alike spoke on the impact a toll would have on the East Bay's economy and culture - almost all supported DiPalma's bill.
Larry Fitzmorris, spokesman for the Sakonnet Toll Opposition Platform (STOP) presented two boxes filled with more than 31,000 signatures against installing tolls on the Sakonnet River Bridge.
"The bridge is a statewide asset so it is a statewide issue," said Robert Coulter, of Tiverton, an activist and former Town Councilor. He told the Senate Committee that residents would be cut off from medical and legal service and that regionalization efforts would be hurt, along with tourism.
"The process really needs your help to put the brakes on this and listen, because we have not been heard," added Coulter.
Small business owners spoke out against the added costs that they would endure - some commercial trucks travel the Sakonnet River Bridge multiple times a day, adding up to thousands of dollars a year in tolls.
"To put a toll on our vehicles, of which we have four or five on the road in the summer, is just not feasible and that is our situation," said Dennis Klodwell, a owner of DePaul Diesel in Portsmouth.
Tiverton resident Martin Van Hof told a similar story. A small business owner with his company headquarters across the river in Portsmouth, Van Hof estimated traveling to and from work would cost $2,200 a year.
"It's 7 miles away from home but that would be $2,200 a year for tolls," said Van Hof. No toll rate has been established by the RITBA for the Sakonnet River Bridge, but Van Hof based his math on the current toll rate of $4 for commercial vehicles on the Newport Pell Bridge.
Tracey Anthony, of Clements Market in Portsmouth, said tolls would hurt everyone as vendors increase prices to make up for travel costs, which trickle down to customers.
"We will all be hurt by an increase in fees from vendors," said Anthony. "If I lose revenue, unfortunately, the state will lose money too and people will not have jobs."
Aquidneck Island residents worried Massachusetts visitors would bypass Rhode Island vacations when faced with paying a toll.
Portsmouth resident Peter Roberts said his Island Park neighborhood would be hit hard by a toll. The oceanfront area comes alive with tourists in the summer that frequent the area's free beaches and support restaurants like Flo's Clam Shack, Reidy's Diner and Scampi. Tourists from Massachusetts and beyond travel across the 2,200-foot Sakonnet River Bridge and are attracted, he said, by the free parking. He worried that when faced with a toll, those same visitors would turn to Horseneck Beach and Cape Cod instead.
"Island Park has free parking, but once you put a toll there, they're going to go to Horseneck Beach," said Roberts. "You're taking money away from all of these businesses. These places will go under because they will not have the business."
Engineering studies by DOT estimated the toll would cause about a 20 percent diversion rate in traffic.
Portsmouth Business Association crunched some numbers and warned that a 20 percent diversion rate in tourist dollars would have serious financial consequences for the state.
Using data compiled by the Newport County Chamber of Commerce, Ray Berberick, the association's president, said that of the 4 million tourists that visit Aquidneck Island annually, about 1 million travel over the Sakonnet River Bridge. Using to the DOT study, he said about 200,000 visitors would no longer travel to the island due to a toll.
"That's roughly $14 million in sales that [Newport County] will lose out on and sales tax that the state will lose out on," he said in an interview on Wednesday after the hearing.
Sen. DiPalma said economic factors and threats to state revenue would be instrumental in blocking tolls on the Sakonnet River Bridge.
"That kind of data is valuable in trying to convince colleagues that this is the best thing to do from a budgetary perspective."
What do you think of the DiPalma plan to increase vehicle inspection fees by $20 to cover bridge maintenance in the East Bay? Tell us in the comments below.