Residents Speaks Out Against Tolls During Second Hearing
There was no lack of audience at the second in a pair of public hearings on the Sakonnet River Bridge toll by the state Department of Transportation in Tiverton on Tuesday night.
Hundreds of residents packed Tiverton High School auditorium, hoping to be heard at the second Sakonnet Bridge toll hearing on Tuesday night.
Michael P. Lewis, director of the Department of Transportation (DOT) opened the meeting at 7:02 p.m. and told residents he would provide an abridged presentation explaining the agency's revenue problems.
"It is not lost on me that this is not a popular proposal, but we are going to talk about the reasons why this is being considered," said Lewis. "The background on how transportation is funded in state, the history of the [state] Turnpike and Bridge Authority and what is this toll that is being proposed."
"Most importantly this is a public hearing opportunity for us at RIDOT to hear from you on the concerns that you have about the proposal to put tolls on the Sakonnet River Bridge," said Lewis, promising to stay as long as it took for everyone to be heard.
Lewis began with a history of the proposal. In the 2013 budget, the governor approved the authorization to transfer ownership of the Sakonnet River and the Jamestown bridges to the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority (RITBA). The transfer has not been certified because the RITBA would need a toll to adequately fund maintenance efforts.
The Sakonnet River Bridge will be complete in spring 2013. "This toll is to ensure the maintenance of the Sakonnet River Bridge and the Jamestown Bridge. That's why this is being proposed," Lewis said.
"There is a very big gap in what is available to adequately maintain roads and bridges compared to what is needed, and that is again what this toll is needed," Lewis added.
Addressing questions from Monday night's public hearing, Lewis told the audience that federal law prohibits tolling on Route 95 because it is Rhode Island's existing interstate highway.
"We are trying to get the flexibility in the next federal law that gives the states the opportunity to make that decision for themselves," said Lewis. "We want to make it a local decision of do we want to raise monies for transportation through tolling or not and keep it at the local level. The difference is the Sakonnet River Bridge, Route 24, is not in the federal aid system and it does not come under that prohibition for tolls."
7:37 p.m. Rick Gobielle is invited to speak about the traffic analysis and what are the impacts assuming a toll is installed on the Sakonnet River Bridge.
Gobielle said he looked at three different locations - by the Massachusetts state line, on the bridge, or on the Portsmouth side of the bridge.
He found the most effective location would be on the bridge.
7:41 p.m.: Sen. Walter Felag, represents Tiverton, Warren and Bristol.
"I vehemently oppose the toll on the Sakonnet River Bridge," he said "I firmly believe this is the most important issue in the 34 years that I have been an elected official."
Felag voted against the current fiscal year budget because it contained Article 20 - which transferred ownership of the bridge from the RIDOT to the the RITBA.
"We've helped out Central Falls, we have helped out the urban communities, let's help out Tiverton, Porstmouth and the East Bay," said Rep. Walter Felag.
7:52 p.m.: Tiverton Resident Nancy Driggs asked, "is this whole evening an exercise in futility, or if you get a lot of complaints and you are marking them all down, will it make a difference in the [Federal Highway Administration's] decision or is it just that you have to show you filed this thing and talked to us?"
7:57 p.m.: About two dozen residents wait in line to speak.
8 p.m.: Tiverton Town Council President Edward Roderick, said Tiverton and Little Compton are treated as the "step child" of Rhode Island.
"Tiverton and Little Compton will now have to pay two tolls to visit the West Bay without a roundabout way through Massachusetts," said Roderick. "As a Rhode Islander I believe we have the right to travel within our own state without having to pay a toll. And regardless of what they might think up on Smith Hill, we are a part of Rhode Island."
The crowd erupts in appluase.
8:05 p.m.: Tiverton Councilman Jay J. Lambert out
"As a taxpayer of Tiverton, my toll will go to pay for bridges in Newport, Tiverton," said Lambert. "I will continue to pay my gas tax to pay for hundreds of bridges around the state while those cities and residents will contribute nothing to the maintenance of the new Sakonnet River Bridge."
8:09 p.m.: Tiverton Councilman William Gerlach thanked residents for their outpouring of support in the fight against tolls.
He asked, "if the Sakonnet River Bridge is one-fifth the size of the Pell, shouldn't the toll be one-fifth as well?"
8:15 p.m.: A Middletown resident said "the governor and the General Assembly, they are picking our pockets."
8:21 p.m.: Rep. Jay Edwards said veterans who depend on the commissary on the base in Newport, for medicine and food on
8:24: Nick Desrosiers, of Lincoln, said he is in favor of the bridge "I think it's a good way to pay for and maintain the bridges."
"There's really no reason for anybody else in the rest of the state to be paying a tax to go over the bridge," he adds as his comments are drowned out by deafening boos from the crowd.
"You talk about being held hostage on the island, I wish I could be held hostage on an island. These are some of the wealthiest people in the state."
A raucous crowd booed Desrosiers out of the room.
8:28 p.m.: Director Lewis reminds the crowd to respect each other's differences in opinion.
8:32 p.m.: David Dennis, a Fall River City Councilor told Director Lewis that he would be introducing a resolution next week reflecting the city's opposition to a toll.
"We have always welcomed these individuals to our city, we look to spend money and tourism in Newport - this is a very shortsighted thing that some governments do while losing site of the bigger picture," said Dennis.
8:41 p.m.: Domenic Bitto, owner of Evelyn's Drive-in in Tiverton is speaking before the DOT.
"I live in Portsmouth and I have a business in Tiverton, we all work there, just are family, the amount of times we are back and forth there everyday, I have got to say it is a big impact," said Bitto. "We run a pretty successful business, but even to lose just 5 percent of that would be devastating because we work on volume. I just can't see how other businesses that are maybe struggling could survive this."
9 p.m.: Connie Harding, of Preserve Portsmouth - a community group aimed at raising awareness regarding land use, buying local and smart growth issues
"Preserve Portsmouth will evaluate legal options for the constitutional right to travel, due process and protection afforded to all citizens and guaranteed by the U.S. constitution," said Harding. "Please accept this as a formal notice as our intent to proceed with all necessary legal action to protect these rights."
9:07 p.m.: Sarah, co-owner of the Portsmouth Shop on East Main Road in Portsmouth, said her she and her mother have operated the business for 31 years, survived a banking crisis in the state, and a couple of recessions.
"At least one-third of our business comes from Tiverton, Little Compton and southeastern Massachusetts, business which we will lose with this toll," she said. "They have told us they won't come, the state will lose $24,000 throughout the year in our sales tax."
9:17 p.m.: Mike Burk, of the Tiverton Democratic Town Committee addresses the DOT.
"This toll is a tax which falls most heavily on the lowest-income of our residents," said Burk. "A gentleman from Lincoln said we are all rich in Newport County, well we're not."
9:20 p.m.: Brett Pelletier of the Tiverton Town Council said a toll could jeopardize tourism and the arts in Newport County.
What do you think about the proposed bridge tolls? Tell us what you think about them or this hearing in the comment section below!