Unable to resolve contentious disagreements over tolls on Aquidneck Island bridges, Rhode Island lawmakers last summer decided instead to re-evaluate the state’s entire transportation-funding structure.
In a last-minute compromise, they delegated the job of finding the best way to pay for all the roads, bridges, highways and mass transit in the state to a nine-member study commission made up of transportation officials, legislative leaders and East Bay General Assembly members.
Now approaching the new year, the East Bay Bridge Commission is down to less than a month until its statutory Jan. 15 deadline to recommend a solution to the full legislature for a vote.
Based on the testimony and debate so far, it’s unclear where the commission is headed or what kind of plan it could put together as an alternative to the bridge tolls that caused a rare rank-and-file revolt on the state budget.
“We are hopeful this committee will find some grand financing scheme for transportation,” said David A. Darlington, chairman of the R.I. Turnpike and Bridge Authority, which owns, maintains and tolls Aquidneck Island bridges that instigated the East Bay uproar. “If there is nothing, then it reverts back to the previous budget, which gave the Authority the ability to raise revenue to maintain the bridges.”
At least two members of the commission, Sen. Louis P. DiPalma, D-Middletown, and Rep, John G. Edwards, D-Tiverton, staunchly oppose tolls, specifically those proposed for the new Sakonnet River Bridge.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Edwards said his main takeaway from public commission hearings so far has been that other states confronting the same transportation issues as Rhode Island have decided “tolling is not always the favored source of income.”
Both Edwards and DiPalma would like to see responsibility for the Sakonnet, Newport Pell, Mount Hope and Jamestown Verrazzano bridges spread among all state taxpayers instead of only bridge users.