By Patrick Anderson
PBN Staff Writer
The Claiborne Pell Bridge entrance ramp lands a few yards from McGrath Clambakes and Catering’s Newport headquarters, giving the business rapid access to the mainland and the ability to operate competitively throughout the state.
But getting on and off Aquidneck Island is more expensive than it used to be, and new toll proposals for the Pell and two other Newport County bridges are raising concerns that the cost of doing business on the island could soon resemble more remote islands.
“Every year they are hitting the businesses harder,” McGrath Clambakes owner T.R. McGrath said about toll-increase proposals for the Pell, Mount Hope and Sakonnet River bridges. “I use all three, so no matter which one they choose, I’ll feel it. I don’t think they have found a good solution, and the ones they are talking about scare me.”
It’s a familiar sentiment among businesses on Aquidneck Island, where a series of recent tax proposals aimed at the hospitality industry were extremely unpopular, and the current toll rates for local trucks, even small ones, are several times higher than local passenger vehicles.
“It is inequitable to place the burden entirely on Aquidneck Island businesses,” said Newport County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Jody Smith. “It is not only going to increase the cost of materials, but would put local businesses at a competitive disadvantage. It’s already difficult for businesses in Tiverton to compete because the burden is less in Massachusetts.”
Rhode Island’s transportation-funding problems are long-standing, as are debates about using tolls to raise the money needed to solve them.
This year the R.I. Turnpike and Bridge Authority already has voted to raise tolls on the Pell bridge and reinstitute them on the Mount Hope Bridge, and Gov. Lincoln D. Chafee has proposed putting a toll on the replacement for the Sakonnet River Bridge when it opens.
Any toll increase is likely to have an impact on companies that have to pay it, but business leaders say the current proposals, like the last toll increases, disproportionally affect commercial traffic and come at a time when local industries have been hit with a number of new taxes, including the guided-tour tax, hotel tax and proposed 2 percentage-point hike in the meals tax.