Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority Chairman David Darlington hadn't yet made it through the second slide of his presentation when the questions started.
East Bay and Aquidneck Island residents peppered Darlington and Department of Transportation Director Michael Lewis with pointed questions and comments, most opposing proposed tolls on the Mount Hope and Sakonnet River bridges, throughout a forum last night at the Burnside Building on Hope Street in Bristol.
The response was not an unexpected development, Darlington said. Residents have come out in force at previous public hearings on the proposal that would bring tolls to the Mount Hope Bridge for the first time since 1998. The fees to cross the bridge — if the General Assembly approves proposals before it — would range from 52 cents to $3.25 each way.
Residents who live in the shadow of the bridge voiced concerns not only with the hit to their commuting costs, but to that of the local economies on both sides of the span should drivers seek alternate routes to avoid tolls. Darlington acknowledged the potential for "some attrition. There are definitely impacts," he said. "But most of the impacts go away in a short period of time."
But any hit — no matter how small it may be — is too much to sustain, according to Gail McGovern, owner of McGovern's Floor Coverings in Bristol. "If they're paying tolls to get to us, they'll go somewhere else," McGovern said. "We've been hanging on by the skin of our teeth. Now you're going to add tolls and strangle us a little more?"
Residents and local officials criticized — sometimes vehemently — the proposal to charge tolls one of the bridges, expressing anger over potential losses in economic development and real estate value, and perceived misuse of state funds.
Bristol Town Council Chairman Kenneth Marshal recommended the authority partner with the state Economic Development Corporation to conduct an economic study on the impact the tolls may have on both sides of the bridge.
"Seeing that the East Bay and Aquideneck Island is one of the largest economic generators and you haven't done a collaboration with EDC, I don't think you've done your due diligence," Marshal said. "It's disrespectful to the residents of East Bay."
Darlington, himself a businessman who also serves as chairman of the state Chamber of Commerse Coalition, said he understands the concerns, but the authority has little choice but to charge the tolls, he said. Revenue from the fees is the authority's only real source of income, and costs to maintain the Mount Hope Bridge and the Newport Pell Bridge approach $250 million a year, he noted. The authority's budget is $4.5 million short just to paint and make routine repairs of both bridges, he said. And if those repairs aren't constantly made, the bridge would deteriorate, forcing the state to impose weight restrictions or even eventually close the span.
"Our task is to maintain your asset. In order to do that, we need to spend a lot of money," Darlington told the crowd of about 40. "We can not let maintenance go. If the asset isn't taken care of, no one will be able to get over it and there will be no business."
Residents on the other side of the island have had to deal with similar issues for decades. The Newport Pell Bridge tolls have increased to $4 cash each way, a number set to increase to $5 this summer. E-Z pass rates will increase from their current 83 cents to $1.
"We owe it to the people who use the Pell Bridge to at least talk about sharing costs," he said.
The money to pay those costs won't be coming from the DOT, according to Lewis. The department is $3 billion short on maintenance costs over the next 10 years, the director said.
"I can't maintain the Sakonnet the day it opens. I don't have the money," Lewis said, showing a slide of the Wampanoug Trail bridge over Warren Avenue in East Providence, part of which is held up by wood timbers. "I'm not recommending this to anyone, but this is the reality. This is what we have all over the state. I need another $300 million a year."
Facing a deficit, the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority voted earlier this year to increase the tolls on the Pell Bridge and explore reinstating tolls on Mount Hope. But that vote was made with the stipulation that the plan may be rescinded if an alternate source of revenue could be found. If approved by the General Assembly, that alternate source of revenue could be tolls on the Sakonnet River Bridge.
The legislation allows the transfer of the Sakonnet and Jamestown Bridges to RITBA. Tolls collected on the Pell and Sakonnet Bridges would be used for operating and maintenance costs and capital projects on all four bridges (Sakonnet, Pell, Mount Hope and Jamestown), as well as for other road and bridge projects throughout the East Bay. With the added revenue from Sakonnet, RITBA would not need to reinstate tolls on Mount Hope or raise the rates on the Pell Bridge.
Despite the DOT's and Turpike and Bridge's Authority's needs, local representitives have vowed to fight any fees on the Mount Hope and Sakonnet. State Rep. Raymond E. Gallison Jr. (Bristol, Portsmouth) and Rep. John G. Edwards (Tiverton, Portsmouth) have introduced bills banning tolls on the Mount Hope and Sakonnet River bridges, respectively, and Sen. Walter S. Felag Jr. (Warren, Bristol, Tiverton) has introduced both bills in the Senate. All have introduced the bills in previous years, but say they are more concerned than ever about discussions the Turnpike and Bridge Authority has been having about creating new tolls.
In order for tolls to be established, the authority would need the General Assembly to pass enabling legislation, and the trio of legislators have said they would vehemently oppose any such bill.