Panel begins review of bridge toll alternatives

Sakonnet River Bridge

Rhode Island legislators began the search for an alternative to the new toll on the Sakonnet River Bridge on Thursday, stepping into a debate about how to pay for the state's aging infrastructure.

During their first meeting, members of a legislative task force reviewing the bridge toll said they don't expect to find any easy solution. The task force includes top state transportation officials and lawmakers - several of whom oppose the toll on the new bridge connecting Tiverton and Portsmouth.

East Bay residents say the toll is a burden, but transportation officials say it's necessary to support bridge maintenance.

"Without a doubt it's a burden," the commission's chairman, Rep. Helio Melo, D-East Providence, said of the toll. "But we need to have the funds to maintain these bridges."

Lawmakers created the commission this year after authorizing a 10-cent toll for the new Sakonnet span, which connects Tiverton and Portsmouth. The Turnpike and Bridge Authority had planned to impose a much higher toll but were prevented by lawmakers. The Authority is expected to consider raising the toll next year, when the cap on the toll expires.

The commission is expected to report its findings to the General Assembly in January, giving lawmakers a few months to consider alternatives before the Sakonnet toll possibly goes up.

Portsmouth resident Ray Berberick attended Thursday's meeting and said he plans to keep a close watch on the commission as it looks at potential alternatives to tolls. Berberick, a financial adviser and a member of the Portsmouth Business Association, said the toll will likely backfire by hurting tourism and burdening local businesses, driving down tax revenues.

He said he would like to see the state commission an independent study on the economic effects of tolls. He believes the state has enough money to fund bridge maintenance without charging motorists each time they use the bridge.

"Where is all the money going?" he asked.