RITBA approves Sakonnet toll hike, deadline extension

JAMESTOWN, R.I. (WPRI) — The Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority (RITBA) agreed Wednesday morning that it plans to soon raise tolls somewhere in Rhode Island, regardless of whether or not it’s on the Sakonnet River Bridge.

RITBA officials met on Wednesday to discuss extending the General Assembly’s April 1 deadline for devising an alternative plan to funding bridge maintenance without implementing a controversial toll on the Sakonnet River Bridge. They agreed to extend the lawmakers’ deadline, and continue tolling Sakonnet drivers the 10-cent rate that has been in place since last August, until May 15.

They also voted to raise tolls on the Newport Pell Bridge if the General Assembly ultimately decides to block the Sakonnet toll plan. If this were the case, RITBA would give control of the Sakonnet back to state transportation department.

RITBA’s Sakonnet proposal would charge Sakonnet drivers with Rhode Island EZPass transponders 50 cents to cross the bridge each way. Out-of-state drivers and drivers without EZPasses would be charged $3.75.

Those rates, if approved by the General Assembly, would take effect May 16 – a date RITBA chairman David Darlington says will give the General Assembly “additional time to resolve their issues relative to a broader financing plan for transportation issues.”

If lawmakers block that plan and control of the Sakonnet goes back to state transportation department, RITBA says it will raise the rates on the Newport Pell Bridge from 83 cents to $1.04 for Rhode Island EZPass drivers and from $4 to $5 for those without a transponder.

In the State House, finance committees from both legislative bodies met Tuesday and endorsed the plan to push the deadline to May 15. The full House and Senate are expected to vote on the issue, and discuss more alternatives, on Thursday.

Darlington also mentioned another potential fix that lawmakers are currently considering. He said proposed legislation would create a 10-year plan that would potentially raise $1 billion in infrastructure funds.

Part of that plan would involve a five-percent surcharge on all motor vehicle fees across the state, which – lawmakers believe – would eliminate the need for a Sakonnet toll altogether.

The highly controversial Sakonnet debate began in 2012, when the state of Rhode Island gave control of the Sakonnet River Bridge and the Jamestown Verrazano Bridges to the RITBA. RITBA, at this point, had plans to impose what was then envisioned as an 83-cent charge on the Sakonnet.

Since then, the Federal Highway Commission has been called in; both towns of Tiverton and Portsmouth formally filed federal lawsuits against RITBA to prevent the tolls; and dozens of town meetings and protests have been held.

RITBA officials argue the tolls are necessary to the long-term maintenance of the authority’s four Rhode Island bridges: the Sakonnet, the Newport Pell, the Jamestown Verrazano and the Mount Hope.

Opponents say the toll is an unfair hardship on Aquidneck Island residents, businesses and tourism industry.

If the General Assembly does not agree to extend the deadline, the 10-cent toll will expire April 1.

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