More than 100 Bristol and nearby residents filled the banquet room of Jacky's Galaxie restaurant on Wednesday night to voice their concerns about the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority's proposal to place tolls once again on the Mount Hope Bridge.
According to the authority, toll collections on the Pell Bridge in Newport have covered the costs of maintaining the Mount Hope Bridge since 1998. However, the authority projects that over the next 10 years the Pell Bridge toll revenue will be $63 million shy of what is required to maintain both bridges. In the proposal, the authority suggests adding tolls on the Mt. Hope Bridge ranging from 52 cents to $3.25, or to increase the tolls on the Pell Bridge to make up for the deficits.
Residents who frequently use the bridge to get to work or run daily errands, like Diane Davis, say a toll would be a big inconvenience.
"I have a 93-year-old mother who I have to bring on many trips back and forth to Newport Hospital," she said, claiming that adding a toll to her commute would be financially unfeasible. "I paid the toll for years before the booths were taken down. I think we've paid our share."
Other people, like Liz Patterson and Ed Cyr, said that if the bridge gets tolls again, they may just find another way to get where they are going.
"I might normally go through Bristol, get coffee and head over the bridge to go to Newport," Patterson said casually. "But why would I do that if tolls are put up? Rather than giving Bristol my business, I'm more likely to take Route 24 and cross the Sakonnet Bridge for free to get to Newport."
Ed Cyr of Bristol admits that since the Pell Bridge tolls increased, he has driven through Providence many times to avoid the bridge. He and many residents may do the same with the Mount Hope Bridge if tolls are implemented.
"Rhode Island already has one of the highest tax rates in the nation, so why should we carry the burden for the rest of the state? Other places get rewards for people coming in, but we are going to charge our residents and people from out of town to come here?"
But the biggest frustration on many residents' minds is why the tolls on the Mount Hope Bridge were abolished to begin with.
"Why were they even taken off?" State Rep. Raymond Gallison asked at the meeting. "The Turnpike Authority did a study and said the Pell Bridge would be able to support both, yet we're back here again today listening to the same broken record."
Former Bristol Town Councilor Raymond Cordeiro echoed the same sentiment.
"You should have never taken the toll booths out of the Mount Hope Bridge to begin with and we wouldn’t be here talking about this again," Cordeiro said.
But According to Darlington, when it was decided to remove the tolls on the Mount Hope Bridge, it was done knowing that the issue would be revisited every three years and was subject to reevaluation.
"Pell Bridge revenue has paid $50 million over the last 13 years for maintenance on Mount Hope," Darlington said. "It is also a fairness issue. The folks on that side are saying, 'why should we pay more here when they don’t have to pay over there.' "
A majority of the people in the room were opposed to tolls on the Mount Hope Bridge, including State Rep. Richard Morrison, who suggested that the bridge authority should be dissolved and the two bridges should be turned over to the Rhode Island Department of Transportation so the whole state pays for maintaining the bridges. But Tiverton resident Stephen Clark claimed that there may not be a better resolution than adding tolls and that handing the two bridges over to the DOT would have tremendous consequences.
"You want to turn it over to DOT? That petrifies me," Clark said. "Look what happened to the Sakonnet bridge. These two bridges are the safest bridges in the state. If you hand them over to the DOT, you won't be able to cross them in five years. Some of you suggest raising a gas tax or other state fees to pay for it? All of that money is going to go into the general fund, and it will be used for something else and the bridges will never get fixed."
"We can't avoid it. Somebody is going to have to pay for it," Clark said.
Residents with questions or concerns about the toll proposal are encouraged to attend a second public hearing that will be held tonight at 7 pm at Portsmouth High School.