State officials were reluctant during a project tour on Monday to pin down a price, location or even to confirm if tolls would be eventually be installed on the new Sakonnet River Bridge or the Mount Hope Bridge.
What is clear is that the state must increase revenue to the state Turnpike and Bridge Authority (RITBA) by $4.3 million annually to cover existing debt service and by millions more to cover the maintenance and operations costs of the two new bridges brought under the authority's control. (The Sakonnet and Jamestown bridges join the Mount Hope and Newport Pell bridges already under the authority's control. By statute, the Turnpike and Bridge Authority must have a second revenue stream in order to take control of the two additional bridges).
"There will be a public process with multiple hearings to tell how we feel," said Gov. Lincoln Chafee when asked if a toll was in the definite future. "We are all in this together. We have to maintain the infrastructure. We all have the same goals here."
Chafee described the toll question as a blank piece of paper — through public input and professional studies, the state will fill in a toll rate, if any, on the Sakonnet River Bridge, where to locate that toll and whether or not toll rates will be adjusted on any of the RITBA's other bridges.
Tiered toll rates for in-state drivers, commuters and cash customers — similar to those on the Newport Pell Bridge — are also an option to minimize the impact of tolls on each individual driver, said Chafee.
"There are numerous scenarios of how we could pay for maintenance, such as raising the Newport toll," said Chafee, adding that he did not advocate this action. "There is not a final decision."
The public will have at least two chances to weigh in, according to Lewis. Public hearings will be held by the end of the year on either side of the Sakonnet River Bridge — one in Tiverton and the other in Portsmouth.
"From a transportation perspective, it is very good to hear from the public," said Lewis. "We need to be clear on what their thoughts are and it is good for them to hear what some of the challenges are that we are facing."
"This isn't a do nothing answer," he added.
While Chafee said he is interested in hearing from the public and exploring alternative revenue sources, he said there aren't many options available.
Throughout the region, residents have circulated petitions and garnered more than 20,000 signatures.
"I anticipated this opposition with the economy being as a bad as it is and it is unfortunate that there is any increase people have to pay," said Chafee. "It's just the reality."
Commuters won't have to worry about tolls for at least another year, however, said Lewis. After the southbound lanes open later this week, drivers might think the bridge complete, but construction is expected to continue through the spring of 2013.