'Trailer' bill would restore Sakonnet tolls

A so-called trailer bill expected to be introduced during the final hours of the General Assembly's session would restore tolls on the Sakonnet River Bridge.

The budget passed by lawmakers last week would delay tolls on the bridge until at least February while the state studies alternative ways to raise revenue for maintenance.

Transportation officials warned lawmakers that the move would destabilize funding for bridge maintenance and violate rules on bridge bond financing that require the Turnpike and Bridge Authority to have the power to set tolls.

House Speaker Gordon Fox now is faced with selling the idea that a small toll on the Sakonnet River Bridge will keep options open for funding bridge maintenance.

It's particularly tough for East Bay legislators who fought hard to kill the proposed tolls.

"No one's going to like it. I don't like it," state Sen. Louis DiPalma, D-Tiverton, said.

DiPalma huddled with representatives opposed to tolls to learn the rationale behind going back on the vote that postponed the toll installation, and he said he has been convinced.

"This is a trailer to address that issue with regards to the bond covenant and options we might have to have with regards to the substantial completion, and what that means and doesn't mean," DiPalma said. "We don't know what the language looks like yet. We're still working on it."

Transportation Department Director Michael Lewis has said delaying the tolls could kill the plan permanently. For federally funded bridge projects, tolls may be introduced only if they begin before the span is deemed "substantially complete," which he said could happen before February.

The idea would be to charge a 10-cent toll on the bridge as a placeholder in the event a higher toll is charged in the future.

The plan to collect tolls on the Route 24 bridge between Portsmouth and Tiverton has faced strenuous opposition from the start, with residents and businesses saying it would pose a financial burden and hurt tourism. Portsmouth and other towns sued to stop installation of the tolls, but a judge allowed it to go forward.

The General Assembly is expected to adjourn Tuesday night or Wednesday.