East Bay and Aquidneck Island drivers are inching closer to an upset victory in their fight against tolls on the Sakonnet River Bridge.
The Senate Finance Committee this month passed a bill that would eliminate the toll, now a mostly symbolic 10 cents, and instead fund bridge maintenance through general tax revenue, gas-tax collections and new motor-vehicle fee hikes.
House leaders have different plans to pay for highway infrastructure financing, but they also include a toll-free Sakonnet, meaning the gantry straddling Route 24 at the bridge entrance could soon be coming down.
That would be a dramatic reversal for a toll plan supported by Gov. Lincoln D. Chafee, the R.I. Department of Transportation, the R.I. Turnpike and Bridge Authority and, until recently, House leadership.
Only a defeat of the House budget last summer, made possible partly through anger over repayment of the 38 Studios bonds, gave East Bay lawmakers the leverage to delay the tolls and now possibly defeat them.
Of course not every interest group comes out a winner in this scenario.
Without Sakonnet revenue, users of the Newport Pell Bridge a few miles away are likely to face a toll hike in the near future.
And Rhode Island residents who don’t use either bridge, including many who don’t own a car, would take on an additional burden for maintaining them.
That could become increasingly unpalatable as gas-tax revenue continues to decline and Rhode Island faces a series of large unfunded or underfunded bridge-replacement projects – the in-progress Providence Viaduct and structurally deficient 6-10 Connector – beyond maintenance of the Narragansett Bay bridges.
“I remain adamant that a reasonable alternative to tolling be reached or the toll’s rate approved by the R.I. Turnpike and Bridge Authority be implemented,” Chafee said in an email response on whether he would veto the Senate bill. “The reality is that there is no funding stream and the money must come from somewhere.”
The Senate bill would bar all tolls in the state except those on the Newport Pell Bridge and create a new fund to pay for road and bridge maintenance.
The new account would be funded with a payment of 0.25 percent of state spending annually, the gas-tax revenue now spent on debt service and a 5 percent surcharge on all Department of Motor Vehicle fees.