- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 18, 2014

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) - Lawmakers in the Rhode Island House began consideration Tuesday of a bill that sponsors say would raise $1 billion for transportation infrastructure statewide over 10 years and eliminate the need for a toll on the Sakonnet River Bridge.

The House Finance Committee reviewed legislation that would pay for infrastructure projects in part by redirecting existing state funds and imposing a 5 percent surcharge on all motor vehicle fees.

Rep. John Edwards, the lead House sponsor, testified that the bill isn’t perfect but addresses the state’s crumbling infrastructure with a minimal amount of new revenue.

“We need $1 billion to fix our infrastructure. This bill does not kick it down the road,” said Edwards, D-Tiverton, who has been at the forefront of opposition to tolling the Sakonnet. “The bottom line is: This is not an easy fix. Tolling is an easy fix. Slap a toll on it and walk away and don’t think about it again.”

The bill would prohibit tolls on the Sakonnet, Mount Hope and Jamestown bridges but leave in place the toll on the Newport Bridge.

Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority Executive Director Buddy Croft testified that the uncertainty over the toll on the Sakonnet is creating difficulties for the agency. He said the RITBA board is expected to discuss at its Wednesday meeting a possible increase of the Newport toll that could offset the loss of revenue if the Sakonnet toll is quashed.

Critics of tolling the newly built Sakonnet span connecting Tiverton and Portsmouth say it poses an unfair burden to commuters, small businesses and tourists. It was set at 10 cents after an eleventh-hour battle in the General Assembly last session but is expected to go up if another funding source can’t be agreed upon.

Edwards‘ legislation would also make RITBA a division of the Department of Transportation and provide more funding for the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority.

Finance Chairman Helio Melo, D-East Providence, questioned some of the bill’s underlying financial assumptions, including its reliance on a reduction in the state sales tax that is tied to action by Congress on unrelated legislation.

The panel was also weighing a bill would push back from April 1 the date at which RITBA could move to charge more than 10 cents on the Sakonnet. That would allow lawmakers additional time to vet the larger transportation infrastructure proposal.