- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 19, 2014

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) - Rhode Island’s bridge authority on Wednesday approved hiking the Sakonnet Bridge toll as of mid-May and raising the Newport Bridge toll instead if the General Assembly blocks any increase on the Sakonnet.

The action by the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority board comes a day after the House and Senate finance committees endorsed pushing back the date at which RITBA may hike the Sakonnet’s 10-cent toll from April 1 to May 15. The full House and Senate are expected to consider that legislation Thursday.

RITBA Chairman David Darlington said that, under the plan approved Wednesday, the Sakonnet toll will go up to 50 cents for those with an in-state E-ZPass transponder and to $3.75 for others beginning May 16.

If the Sakonnet increase is blocked, the toll on the Newport Bridge will climb from 83 cents to $1.04 for those with an in-state E-ZPass and from $4 to $5 for others, he said. Those rates would take effect May 16.

Lawmakers are considering a separate 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 span altogether.

Critics of tolling the Sakonnet say it poses an unfair financial burden to small businesses and commuters and will hurt tourism.

The in-state E-ZPass rate for the Sakonnet approved Wednesday is significantly less than the 75 cents the bridge authority originally approved before the General Assembly stepped into the toll debate last session; the authority had also approved a rate of $5.25 for those without E-ZPass.

Darlington said that savings reflected in RITBA’s new 10-year plan, also adopted Wednesday, allowed it to lower the Rhode Island E-ZPass rate. He also said the authority renegotiated a contract with a vendor to send bills to those without a transponder based on their license plates, allowing RITBA to drop the $5.25 rate.

Darlington added: “It’s not lost on us that folks were concerned over the prior rates.”

Legislators last year set a “placeholder” rate of 10 cents on the Sakonnet - until April 1 - while a commission reviewed transportation infrastructure funding statewide.

During a hearing Tuesday night, House Finance Chairman Helio Melo, D-East Providence, referred to the back-and-forth between the General Assembly and RITBA as a “game of chicken.”

Darlington has told lawmakers that RITBA will have to transfer the Sakonnet and Jamestown bridges back to the state Department of Transportation if an increase on the Sakonnet is not allowed. In a letter to them this week, he said RITBA can’t manage its bridges “without an appropriate and reliable revenue stream” for their maintenance.

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