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Letter: Why I Am In Firm Opposition to Bridge Tolls

Letter to the editor from Rep. Daniel P. Reilly

Dear Editor,

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.

John Weisley June 23, 2012 at 04:31 AM
RIBTA thinks its just a matter of time before they get to put tolls on the Sakonnet Bridge. RIBTA employees will campaign against you. Look how RIBTA runs the Pell Bridge now: (1) they overpay base employees (2) they overpay the executives (3) 50% of the toll revenue they collect goes directly to salary and benefits for their employees. Getting the Sakonnet bridge would give them another pot of gold to spread around to their friends and families. It wouldn't matter if it was THEIR bridge or their business. An owner of a business can pay himself and his employees whatever he or she wants. But its just an example of whats wrong with Rhode Island, why the State can't fund infastructure or operate correctly: Its because those in charge don't enforce the rule of law and instead bargain with their friends to give each other the taxpayer's money.
Brian June 23, 2012 at 11:52 AM
Your obsession with Central Falls is distrurbing. We all have to pay for the privilege of living in this State, and that means letting the State allocate tax resources in a manner that best serves ALL Rhode Islanders. Save your tirades against the victims of circumstance in Central Falls. Don't like your state tax dollars going to subsidize smaller, low income communities? Move to Texas.
pferd June 23, 2012 at 12:14 PM
This state has been declared: dead. People don't realize it but it will hurt them all by driving even more business away. Wait til the traffic Backs up because of the tolls Bet you they did not think of it. Idiots Including the central falls moron who thinks he and the dump called central falls is entitled to extra money
John Weisley June 23, 2012 at 06:50 PM
Brian: We all have to pay for the privilege of living in our respective communities, not others communities and responsibilities. When the State bails out Central Falls, the state has less money to give to Newport for the schools, so our property taxes go up. The fact is that the municipalities made these "promises" without doing due dilligence, without consulting the taxpayer, without even bargaining, giving away money and benefits so that local politicans could buy elections (or buy themselves a better paying position with pension benefits after they leave their local leadership position). These promises are unenforceable, there was no consideration given for them. The game is up. The cronyism, the nepotism. Trading pensions and higher wages for votes or for a better paying job (for the politician) these games have lead us to financial ruin. The unfunded local pensions will never be funded, there isn't enough money, and not enough time. To fund the pensions owed in aquidneck island, you would have to raise property taxes by more than $1,750.00 per year, per homeowner. Some people aren't going to be able to afford this, they will have to sell their house and move. Property values will drop, so they will have to raise property taxes even more. We need a long term solution, not just a bandaid (like cutting COLAs)

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