By Meg O’Neil
Board members from the Discover Newport Visitors Bureau met with Rhode Island Turnpike & Bridge Authority Chairman David Darlington on Tuesday, Nov. 20 to discuss the proposed tolls on the new Sakonnet River Bridge.
The prospect of a toll on the new span has been a hot-button issue with the public over the last several months – especially those who live close to the bridge in Portsmouth, Tiverton and Little Compton. However, according to Darlington, despite public petitions against tolling and public statements in opposition from the Newport Chamber of Commerce claiming it would hurt local the local economy, new tolls are likely to be installed.
Currently, the Rhode Island Turnpike & Bridge Authority has responsibility for the Newport Pell Bridge and the Mount Hope Bridge.
When the state General Assembly approved the budget in June, it included the transfer of both the Sakonnet River Bridge and the Jamestown Bridge from the Rhode Island Department of Transportation to the Turnpike & Bridge Authority.
According to Darlington, due to covenants with bond holders, the Bridge Authority cannot take an asset from the state if it does not have a dedicated revenue stream. “We have very little leeway as to where our revenue comes from,” Darlington told the board. “For us, it’s a toll. That’s our purpose, and it’s how we get revenues.”
While state legislators and elected officials have offered alternative ways to generate additional revenue to avoid installing tolls, Darlington noted that the Bridge Authority does not have the ability to make those decisions. “We are a functionary in the process,” he told the Discover Newport board. “The state says to us, ‘You have these two assets, maintain them.’ We do that very well, and we’re determined to do it. Whatever the consequences are, we will maintain those structures.”
The Newport Pell Bridge accounts for roughly 10 million transits a year. Darlington said that although the Pell Bridge is perceived as the main artery into Newport, the bridge is actually considered to be a “commuter structure” with 82 percent of the traffic going over the bridge being commuters on their way to and from work.
The Mount Hope Bridge carries about 6 million vehicles a year.
By comparison, alhough it’s the shortest of the four bridges leading to Aquidneck Island, the Sakonnet River Bridge carries the most vehicles a year, totaling about 15 million.
“What is proposed here is a four bridge system, paid for with tolls on the Sakonnet River Bridge and Newport Pell Bridge,” Darlington told the board. “The money collected would help the four bridges. The proposal is not to have a toll on the Sakonnet River Bridge to help pay for the Sakonnet River Bridge. The toll is to have the four assets be able to collect money from two assets.”
Before the Department of Transportation can completely transfer the two bridges to the Turnpike & Bridge Authority, the Federal Highway Administration requires that a modified environmental impact statement be completed that analyzes the effects the tolls may have on businesses, residences, side roads, and more.
Darlington said that forums on the impact statement will take place in Portsmouth and Tiverton on Dec. 3 and 4. During those hearings, Darlington said that public input would be taken into account. Once that process is completed, Darlington said the transfer of the two bridges would take place in January or February 2013.
If it is determined that tolls are to be added on the Sakonnet River Bridge, they would likely be operational by June 2013. Because there is no room for toll booths, an arbor system will be installed above the bridge, creating what Darlington called a “video toll” that will read and deduct toll amounts from E-ZPass transponders, and read the license plates of vehicles that do not have an E-ZPass.
For drivers who do not have an E-ZPass, Darlington said the penalty toll would be far less costly than it is for violators who do not pay the toll at the Pell Bridge.
“The Sakonnet River Bridge toll system is an entirely different structure, because there isn’t a choice for drivers,” he said. There will likely be a dollar added to the toll amount and sent to the driver’s registered address with a note explaining why they should get an E-ZPass, he said.
Discover Newport President & CEO Evan Smith asked Darlington whether tolls might be added to the Mount Hope Brigde in the event that they are not added to the Sakonnet River Bridge.
Darlington said yes, adding that if the Sakonnet River Bridge did not get tolled, it’s likely that there would be not only a one-dollar increase to the Newport Pell Bridge toll, but also a toll added to the Mount Hope Bridge.
“If the Sakonnet River Bridge comes online and gets tolled, it takes pressure off of a Pell Bridge increase for some time,” Darlington said.
A member of Discover Newport from Bristol asked Darlington if the environmental impact statement would look at the economic affect a Sakonnet River Bridge toll would have on a local municipality.
Darlington said that part of the modified environmental impact statement is to examine economics. “The study of the economics is a macro study,” he explained. “It does not ask how does the toll affect Bristol in particular, but how does it affect the region. If you’re a small businessman, it won’t address the particular issues of Bristol Harbor, but it’s more of a regional look at it. My sense is it will not look as closely as business people may like it to.”
A woman representing Discover Newport – Tiverton asked if tolling would take into account drivers who are on government-assisted programs, who may not be able to afford a toll.
“I think it’s possible and something that can be looked into,” Darlington said. He then went on to explain that the Turnpike & Bridge Authority offers multiple E-ZPass options and that the organization would continue to examine new payment options to accommodate drivers.
When asked if he knew how much the toll on the Sakonnet River Bridge would cost drivers, Darlington said, “I don’t have numbers right now. The answer is, ‘it depends.’ There’s a lot of preliminary numbers right now, and to discuss them here would be inappropriate.”