Four local lawmakers joined the Tiverton Town Council at its Monday meeting with a message for Newport County to rally together against the imposition of a toll on the Sakonnet River Bridge and offer revenue-generating alternatives.
Without coming up with other options to make up for the expected revenues from the tolls and pay for bridges and roads, legislators said cries of opposition would go unheard on Smith Hill.
"Any responsible legislator is going to do more than just be anti-toll," said Sen. Christopher Scott Ottiano (R-Dist. 11). "The Turnpike and Bridge Authority has often very eloquently been quoted in saying, and has for over decade or so, that where the money comes from is not its concern, but the concern is taking care of those bridges."
What those alternatives will look like is still up for discussion. Legislators are awaiting to the results of economic and environmental impact studies that will ultimately affect toll rates and placement. The results of the two studies will not be tallied until November.
According to Edwards, the state Department of Transportation is estimating daily revenues of $100,000 from the Sakonnet Bridge toll with an excess of $10 million to $15 million per year.
Sen. Louis P. DiPalma (D-Dist. 12) said the excess annual revenues could be stored in an East Bay infrastructure fund that would be used to maintain bridges and roads throughout the region. This would ensure that Newport County infrastructure was taken care of with the money earned from the East Bay tolls before it was invested across the state.
"If we find them inevitable, I have been working with my colleagues to see if we can get the tolls off of the bridge so Tiverton and Portsmouth can continue to have free access," said Rep. John G. Edwards (D-Dist. 70).
Some other options legislators are exploring are fixed rates for commuters - including out-of-state travellers. Edwards said less than 33 percent of cars that travel the bridge daily are out-of-state drivers.
"Don't duplicate your effort," said Ottiano. "Start from scratch and get everyone in the same room to make sure you are unified and have a very sharp point because if the effort is dull, the effort will be diluted."
The legislators indicated that the Sakonnet River Bridge was chosen to support the tolls rather than other high-traffic routes such as the Route 195 Iway because East Bay legislators are outnumbered.
"We are grossly outnumbered down there so if they are going to target an area, they are going to target an area where they are sure they can get the votes to carry it," said Edwards.
Legislators urged residents to continue to communicate their concerns about what the tolls would do to small businesses and working families who depend on the bridge in personalized letters to the governor. A county-wide effort to gather signatures in opposition to the bridge toll has garnered more than 5,000 signatures, according to residents circulating the petitions at local businesses, but lawmakers said it would not carry as much weight as addressing the the governor and legislators in the rest of the state directly.
"I strongly urge the council to get together with the other towns and sit down with the governor so you can look him right in the eye and tell him your concerns," said Edwards.
Sen. Walter S. Felag, Jr. (D-Dist. 10) also attended.
The council did not accept any public commentary on the toll issue at the meeting, citing attempts to manage the length of the meeting. Council President Jay Lambert said an additional Town Hall meeting would be scheduled in the coming months to move forward with a unified approach to fighting the Sakonnet Bridge toll.
"I'm greatly disappointed in you guys for placing this on the agenda and yanking it out from under us," said James Lipe, a resident and active voice against the tolls.