Senate panel approves bill blocking Sakonnet toll

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) - A bill that would block tolls on the Sakonnet River Bridge and establish a transportation infrastructure fund to pay for statewide projects cleared a Senate hurdle Tuesday, but the House is pursuing a different version.

The Senate Finance Committee endorsed an amended version of legislation Sen. Louis DiPalma introduced earlier this year. The Middletown Democrat said it would raise about $800 million over the next 10 years for bridges, roads and the state’s public transit agency.

The amended version still raises the money - less than initially envisioned - by redirecting state funds, but eliminates a proposed 5 percent surcharge on motor vehicle fees. Under the latest version, the funds would be redirected beginning in fiscal year 2016.

DiPalma’s legislation also transfers the Sakonnet and Mount Hope bridges from the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority back to the state Department of Transportation.

Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, a Democrat who represents Newport, attended the committee meeting and spoke in favor of the bill. She called it critical to have a dedicated source of funding for transportation.

“For too long we have ignored the maintenance of our bridges,” she said.

She conceded that taking money from one part of the budget and redirecting it into the fund “may mean difficult spending choices by future governors.” But, she said after the vote, “We’re saying this is a priority.”

The authority board voted previously to hike the 10-cent toll on the Sakonnet beginning May 16 if lawmakers take no action. If the Sakonnet toll is nixed, the Newport Bridge toll is slated to go up instead to fund bridge maintenance costs.

Opponents of the Sakonnet toll, including some residents and small businesses, complain it poses a financial burden and will harm tourism.

On Tuesday, Rep. John Edwards, D-Tiverton, a critic of the Sakonnet tolls, said his version of the legislation differs from the Senate bill in many ways. He said it identifies different funding sources, the details of which are still being worked out, and the funding would begin in the coming fiscal year.

“Why put it off?” Edwards said in an interview. “If we’re going to do it, why delay it anymore? We can’t afford to delay it anymore.”

The House bill also keeps the Mount Hope Bridge under the authority’s control, he said.

Both Edwards and Paiva Weed said they are hopeful the authority will backtrack on any toll increase on May 16, anticipating action by the General Assembly on the larger transportation funding bill.

A message left with a RITBA spokeswoman Tuesday wasn’t immediately returned. The agency’s board is scheduled to meet Wednesday, when the Senate will also take up its version of the bill.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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