RI leaders say they’ll nix Sakonnet tolls, hike gas tax

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Rhode Island lawmakers announced Thursday they’ve reached a deal to get rid of the controversial toll on the Sakonnet River Bridge by hiking taxes and fees and redirecting money into a new infrastructure fund.

Democratic legislative leaders struck the agreement during their negotiations over the 2014-15 state budget, which was unveiled and approved late Thursday night by the House Finance Committee. They hailed it as a breakthrough for Rhode Island after years of failing to invest enough money in its roads and bridges.

“This is a great day not only for the East Bay but for the whole of Rhode Island, because we can actually say Little Rhody is going to get it right,” Rep. Jay Edwards, D-Tiverton, told reporters during a State House briefing.

Maintenance of the East Bay bridge, which opened to traffic in 2012 and replaced a crumbling older structure, was supposed to be funded with a toll. But after an outcry from local residents lawmakers voted last year to impose a 10-cent placeholder toll while they studied alternatives.

House Finance Committee Chairman Raymond Gallison said the legislation that’s been crafted as an alternative to the tolls will raise the gas tax, hike two vehicle fees, and redirect money from various transportation sources to a new fund to pay for infrastructure repairs. The changes will be phased in over five years.

“We are going to better our infrastructure across the state while eliminating the tolls on the East Bay, and there’s no single burden we’re imposing on anyone that’s oppressive,” House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello told reporters.

Gallison said that on July 1, 2015, Rhode Island’s vehicle inspection fee will rise from $39 to $55 and its good-driving fee will rise from $25 to $50. The money from those fees – as well as two other fees, a surcharge on rentals and for motor-vehicle titles, which won’t be raised – will be redirected to the new infrastructure fund.

In addition, Rhode Island’s gasoline tax will be indexed to inflation starting in the fiscal year that begins July 1, 2015, and be adjusted upward every two years, House leaders said. Sen. Lou DiPalma, a leading architect of the transportation compromise, said the increase in the gas tax would be roughly 1 cent in 2015.

Rhode Island’s gas tax is currently 33 cents a gallon, which ranks 14th-highest in the country, according to The Tax Foundation. Massachusetts’ gas tax is 26.5 cents, while Connecticut’s is 49.3 cents. Rhode Island last increased the gas tax in 2009, by 2 cents.

House legislators estimated the new infrastructure fund will generate roughly $50 million a year for transportation funding once it’s fully phased in during the 2018-19 fiscal year. In later years much of the money will come from state general revenue, which will reduce the amount available for other spending, House staff said.

Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed described the proposal as a responsible plan that would help Rhode Island’s economy over time. “It would have been very easy for the folks behind me to simply say, we don’t want a toll on the Sakonnet River Bridge,” she said. But, she said, “they didn’t make that choice.”

The Sakonnet River Bridge will remain part of the quasi-public R.I. Turnpike and Bridge Authority (RITBA), which will receive part of the proceeds from the new infrastructure fund to cover its maintenance costs, lawmakers said. There will be no immediate changes to the tolls on the Newport Pell Bridge.

A spokeswoman for RITBA told The Associated Press the authority had invested up to $5 million in the tollbooths for the bridge, which will now apparently need to be dismantled.

A portion of the infrastructure fund’s money will also be directed to the R.I. Public Transit Authority, which manages the state’s mass transit system. The proposal also uses R.I. Capital Plan Fund money and excess proceeds from previous state bond sales, lawmakers said.

Also on Thursday, Edwards introduced legislation to create a study commission that will look at alternatives to the state’s existing gasoline tax. Other states have introduced different systems for funding transportation, such as one that taxes residents based on how many miles they drive, to deal with improving fuel efficiency and falling gasoline sales.

Ted Nesi ( tnesi@wpri.com ) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com and writes the Nesi’s Notes blog. Follow him on Twitter: @tednesi

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