By Meg O'Neil
There was a capacity crowd at Portsmouth High School on Monday, Dec. 3, as over 500 area citizens attended the first of two informational public workshops pertaining to the proposed tolling of the new Sakonnet River Bridge. The meeting was led by Rhode Island Department of Transportation Director Michael P. Lewis, as part of a mandated public process for the creation of an Environmental Impact Statement, which is required by the Federal Highway Administration to gauge the effect that tolls would have on the area.
More than two hours of statements made by those in attendance were entered into the record during the course of the evening meeting.
Prior to taking public comments, Lewis provided background on the proposed tolls and on the budget shortfall that the Department of Transportation is facing in the state.
Currently, the Rhode Island Turnpike & Bridge Authority controls two bridges connecting to Aquidneck Island: the Newport Pell Bridge and the Mount Hope Bridge.
When the Rhode Island General Assembly approved the state budget in June, it included a provision for the transfer of both the Sakonnet River Bridge and the Jamestown Bridge from the Department of Transportation to the Turnpike & Bridge Authority.
The transfer would create a four-bridge system called the East Bay Bridge System, Lewis said. “This is about providing a source of revenue to adequately maintain the Sakonnet River Bridge and the three others for perpetuity … The revenues collected at the [two bridges] would fund maintenance, operation and capital improvements needed over time.”
Lewis said that since 2007, citizens are not only driving less, but cars have become more fuel efficient. “People are getting more miles on less money, and it means the state takes in less revenue,” he said. “Over five years, our single source of revenue has dropped $17 million a year in funding for RIPTA and the Department of Transportation, and we don’t see that curve going back up.”
Lewis said that the Department of Transportation does not have adequate sources of revenue to properly maintain the roads and bridges in the state: “The day the Sakonnet River Bridge officially opens – we don’t have the funds to adequately maintain it,” he stated.
According to Lewis, if the Environmental Impact Statement is evaluated and ultimately approved by the Federal Highway Administration, then the toll could be put into effect by summer 2013.
When questioned why the toll could not be installed somewhere along I-95, Lewis said that the Department of Transportation proposed the idea, but that current federal law does not allow the tolling of highways built with federal monies.
About 50 people made public comments following Lewis’ statements. All opposed the proposed tolls. Several themes emerged: the impact tolls would have on local businesses; families struggling to make ends meet; and mismanagement and indifference at the state level.
Portsmouth resident Larry Fitzmorris was the first to speak. He informed Lewis that over 26,000 people have signed a petition in opposition to the tolls. “This [toll] is being imposed on the people of East Bay against our will … we did not contribute to the decision, but the bill is being delivered to us. We have a mismanagement problem – not a lack of revenue problem. The General Assembly and governor made this decision without doing their homework simply because they do not care.”
One of the biggest concerns aired was the effect tolls will have on small businesses in the area. Several restaurant owners voiced their opinions.
Komes Rozes, who owns Flo’s Clam Shack in Middletown and Portsmouth, worries that thousands of his customers who have made a 60-year tradition of weekly visits to Flo’s will stop coming if they have to spend $8 on tolls to eat $6 clamcakes. “I will lose a minimum of $250,000 a summer because of that toll – that’s a lot of clams,” he said.
A Middletown resident who is on the Beach Commission said placing a toll on the Sakonnet River Bridge would place a barrier between Aquidneck Island and the many beach visitors from southeastern Massachusetts. He said that during the summer, roughly one third of all cars at Middletown beaches are from Massachusetts and that if tolls were implemented, it could mean a loss of $260,000 in beach parking revenue.
Others spoke about how they will struggle to pay for multiple trips a day by multiple family vehicles, and many questioned why no state leaders were in attendance.
Bristol resident Peter Hewett thanked Lewis and Turnpike & Bridge Authority Chairman David Darlington for listening to the community. “You have a tough job, and I doubt you are the decision makers,” he told them. “I’m looking around and wondering where are those decision-makers? Where is Senate President Teresa Paiva-Weed? Where is Governor Chafee? The people who should be held accountable are not here tonight, and that speaks volumes.”
Again on Tuesday, Dec. 4, Lewis and representatives from the Department of Transportation and the Turnpike & Bridge Authority faced opposition to the proposed tolls, this time at Tiverton High School at the second public workshop.
Before closing, Lewis encouraged the public to submit comments to the Dept. of Transportation by emailing CustomerService@dot.ri.gov; or by calling 222-2450; or by connecting on Facebook.com/RIDOTNews and Twitter.com/RIDOTNews.
For the full story and more comments made by the audience at Portsmouth High School, pick up Thursday's edition of Newport This Week.