Tiverton Toll Meeting Shows Rhode Islanders Have to Stop Fighting Fire with Paper

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Last night, I attended the first organizational meeting for the Tiverton branch of Sakonnet Toll Oppostion Platform (STOP), a cross-community effort to stop the state of Rhode Island from placing a toll on the Sakonnet River Bridge.  If I was skeptical about the ability of residents to prevent the tolls before, I’m pretty well convinced that the people of the East Bay will not be able to stop them, now.

The audience consisted of approximately fifty residents, from a broad variety of local groups and interests — many most often seen in heated attacks against each other over the usual slate of issues that face the town.  Even though the only state-level official in the room was Sen. Walter Felag (D, Bristol, Tiverton, Warren), the opportunity should be there, in other words, for some effective leaders to draw on the strengths of the different groups to affect state-level lawmakers.

Instead, the meeting began with a 20-minute monologue from Tiverton Town Council President Jay Lambert, who — before any explanation of the political lay of the land or feedback from the assembled notables — laid out his vision of nearly a dozen subcommittees of the local subcommittee of the broader STOP movement.  There’s an Economic Impact Subcommittee to drum up sad tales of economic hardship; there’s a Petition Subcommittee to get folks in the area to sign documents professing that they’d rather not pay to go over the river; and of course, there’s a Liaison Subcommittee to make sure that the Tiverton subcommittee works with the subcommittees from other communities.

Unfortunately, none of this addresses the political reality as it currently stands or focuses efforts on where they need to be.

When the restless audience was able to speak, resident Barbara Pelletier offered the suggestion that the group should pitch to the General Assembly the idea of giving people within a certain distance of the bridge free passage.  Nobody in the room appeared aware that, during the floor debate on the relevant budget article, Rep. Karen Macbeth (D, Cumberland) offered an amendment that would have done essentially that, and the legislators voted 48 to 24 against it.  Majority Leader Nicholas Mattiello (D, Cranston) said that doing so would eliminate too much revenue.

Resident Roger Bennis reviewed some older news reports to “read between the lines” and infer that the state intends to use the toll money for more than just maintenance of this particular bridge, or even of bridges in the East Bay.  But anybody who followed the House floor debate would have left with the sense that the elected officials from other parts of the state fully see this toll as a way to boost funding of infrastructure activities everywhere, particularly in the urban areas.

This is all to say that petitions of East Bay ire won’t do anything; everybody in government knows locals don’t want the tolls.  The problem isn’t that officials just haven’t realized the personal harm to people on this side of the state; they just don’t care.

So, the only solution is to make them care, which would require not petitions, but pledges from voters in distant RI cities and towns not to vote for any legislator who opposes repeal of the toll-enabling legislation.  It would require a strong statement from the East Bay to its own representatives that they must refuse to back a single piece of legislation submitted by any senator or representative who won’t repeal the tolls — good or bad, friend or foe.

Last-ditch efforts are necessarily extreme, and this game reached match-point when there weren’t 50 people filling the House Finance hearing room with “You Toll Our Bridge, We Throw You Off It” t-shirts at 10:00 p.m. on May 31st, when the joint House and Senate committee received the budget.  The game was essentially over when those people hadn’t multiplied to 200 to stuff the chamber galleries at TV prime time in June and cheer every legislator who opposed the tolls while booing every one who supported them.

Now, the legislators are over their toll-related political hump.  The governor and his bureaucrats are in the humor-them phase that they surely anticipated, during which they’ll lead the East Bay on that there’s hope… if only the people do some busywork and seek that elusive miraculous alternative to come up with the same amount of money without upsetting anybody else.  (If there really were hope, the governor would be on the advisory board of STOP.)  But signing on for subcommittees, writing letters to the editor, and submitting petitions won’t do.

The only hope to stop the tolls, in my estimation, is to make them a noisy single-issue priority for a broad cross-section of Rhode Islanders.  One strange incident at last night’s meeting hinted at the unlikelihood of such a movement:  Local realtor and Tiverton STOP chairwoman Chee Laureano built up toward a passionate description of Rhode Island’s poor performance on so many measures and its high tax and fee burden.  “They’ve got to stop spending and taxing,” she said.

Tiverton Democratic Town Committee head Mike Burk interrupted her, “Excuse me, I thought we were here about the tolls.  Seriously.”

We most definitely were.  But the tolls relate to spending.  Spending relates to taxing.  As Rep. Jay Edwards (D, Portsmouth, Tiverton) said on the floor of the House, “This is nothing but a tax.  It’s a tax.  It’s a tax.  It’s a tax.”  And it’s a tax on towns that have been leading the state in population and employment loss.

If those who oppose it are reduced to forming informational committees and talking in bland terms about the narrow issue of a toll on a particular bridge, then they are merely fighting fire with paper.



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