02/13/13 – Senate Finance Committee, Sakonnet River Bridge Tolls

4:32 p.m.
Terrible traffic in Providence — attributable, perhaps, to poor snow removal and massive road deterioration — made me a bit late for the Senate Finance committee hearing on the Sakonnet River Bridge tolls, but Capitol TV shows the legislators still chatting on the floor.

Room 313 of the State House is overflow capacity, at this point, but I’ll confess to being still skeptical about the odds of repealing the toll. As I’ve said before, if this many people had been present for the House Finance Committee hearing at which the tolls made their first appearance or in the gallery during the House floor debate, it just may have never gotten this far.

A lesson for the future, folks.

4:42 p.m.
A Capitol Police officer is announcing that there’s an overflow room next door for those who want some more space. I haven’t seen that announced before.

4:48 p.m.
It’s like a blending of my worlds, here, with all the Tiverton people in the room. The Newport Daily News even renewed its State House beat for the evening, sending Joe Baker up to cover the hearing. Upon introducing himself, he reminded me of a commentary spat we had a few years ago.

People have long memories. I’d forgotten about that.

4:56 p.m.
As the Senators filter in, I’ve refreshed my memory about the Joe Baker exchange: here, here, and here. Ah, the early days of the Obama administration.

5:06 p.m.
Senate Communications Director Greg Paré handed out to the press the sign-in sheet for witnesses. A little over 50 names on the list.

5:16 p.m.
Sen. Walter Felag (D, Bristol, Warren, Tiverton) introduced his bill (S0020). (My computer surprised me with one of those inexplicable automatic updates that restarts the computer, so I’m playing catch-up.) His basic message, he says, is that “we don’t want the tolls.” He suggested an alternative funding mechanism of removing the governor’s incentive payment for municipal pensions.

Walter Felag

5:21 p.m.
Sen. Louis DiPalma (D, Newport, Middletown, Little Compton, Tiverton) is now introducing his alternative bill (S0242), which eliminates the tolls and increases vehicle inspection fees across the state. (Yeah, I’d say they can find the money in the budget as it is.) When the increased fees exceed the bridge maintenance costs, the excess money will go to road and bridge maintenance. “Putting us on the path” to funding infrastructure properly… didn’t the General Assembly say such things about increasing the gas tax? Wasn’t the sales tax implemented mid-century to make sure that schools could be adequately funded?

Louis DiPalma

Seems to me that when they’re serious about something, they’ll find the money in other spending.

5:28 p.m.
Representative John Edwards (D, Portsmouth, Tiverton): “This toll is not about maintaining the Sakonnet River Bridge; it’s mainly about maintaining the other three bridges.” His point is that the new bridge won’t need much maintenance, so it’s unfair to hit up the folks who use it for all of the others.

Sen. Chris Ottiano (R, Portsmouth, Tiverton) spoke before Edwards.

John Edwards and Chris Ottianno

Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed is sitting in on the Finance Committee dais. She asked Chairman Daniel DaPonte to ask everybody who testifies whether they would support tolls on the Mount Hope Bridge or an increase of the toll on the Newport Bridge.

Teresa Paiva Weed

Edwards says he would not.

Ottianno says this is a rare instance of a Republican supporting an increase in fees… namely DiPalma’s car inspection fee alternative. I’m not so sure he’s accurate that RI Republicans are habitually loath to raise taxes.

Newcomer Rep. Dennis Canario (D, Little Compton, Portsmouth, Tiverton) was of like mind with the other two legislators at the witness table.

Dennis Canario

5:37 p.m.
Resident Jonathan Cottrell, who signed in as an “independent man” says, “I’m here to say two things: fiscal responsibility and jobs. If we’re not about that, we’ve got nothing.” On the other hand, he likes the inspection fee alternative.

5:40 p.m.
Pete Hewett says the state has a “prioritization problem.” He says the funding can be found within the budget as it is.

Pete Hewett

5:44 p.m.
Resident Barbara Pelletier calls for giving everybody in Rhode Island a transponder so that the state can implement a mileage tax… oh, boy. (Can there be any doubt that such comments are music to the legislators’ ears?) She had some other ideas, like selling naming rights to the bridge.

5:46 p.m.
Former Tiverton Town Council member Rob Coulter notes his wife’s business on the island and his work on the Navy base as evidence of his standing to testify about the harm that tolls will do to a broad array of people.

Robert Coulter

“We have not been listened to.” He says various meetings related to the tolls have been postponed and open records requests to DOT have not been responded to. “The process has not been fair, and it has not been thorough.”

He points out that the toll bridge would create a barrier between Tiverton and the rest of Rhode Island… alludes to the town’s history of shifting between Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

“The bridge is a statewide asset” and ought to be funded statewide. He also thinks lowering the Newport Bridge toll would ultimately increase revenue.

5:52 p.m.
Peter Roberts, a resident of the Island Park neighborhood of Portsmouth, says he’s 100% disabled and on Social Security. He can’t afford even a small toll.

Peter Roberts

He also points out that the summer traffic in his neighborhood is all from Massachusetts, because the beach is free and the parking is free. A toll would shift the balance and destroy the businesses serving those visitors.

5:55 p.m.
Dennis Klodnell owns DePaul Diesel Service in Portsmouth, and several of his 11 employees live in Massachusetts, and his business goes over the bridge frequently. They also just invested a million dollars in a facility in Tiverton.

I’d suggest that folks around the state don’t really understand that the East Bay has developed to treat the Sakonnet River Bridge as more of a back road, not at all comparable to the Newport Bridge, or even the Mount Hope Bridge.

Tracy Anthony, of Clements Marketplace in Portsmouth is noting that people drive miles to save money on groceries, and tolling the bridge would have a disproportionate impact on their shopping decisions. “If I lose revenue, the state will lose revenue, and people will lose jobs.”

Tracy Anthony

Tony Viveiros, now: “Rhode Island did not get into this situation overnight.”

6:02 p.m.
Larry Fitzmorris, a member of the Portsmouth Concerned Citizens and the STOP (the tolls) group, sat down with two totes completely filled with paper, for a stack about two feet tall. Chairman DaPonte asked, “You’re not going to read all that, are you?”

Fitzmorris turned the totes around and they’re labeled: “31,000 signatures.” They’re the petition to stop the tolls.

Larry Fitzmorris

6:05 p.m.
He says that every municipal council except Newport has passed a resolution opposing the toll.

“The bridge is located right in the center of our society in the East Bay.”

6:08 p.m.
He notes that people without transponders will pay around $1,500 a year to go to work each day. I already know people from Massachusetts who work at low-paying jobs on the island who just won’t be able to continue with their jobs.

As Fitzmorris notes, more people will try to avoid the toll by going over the Mount Hope Bridge, turning Bristol into a parking lot.

6:10 p.m.
Sen. Felag asked if Fitzmorris has any analysis of the effect on the Newport Grand slot casino. Fitzmorris said the owner has projected that she’ll be out of business within five years, between Massachusetts casinos and the tolls.

6:12 p.m.
Roy Berberick of the Portsmouth Business Associations says that he also supports removing the toll on the Newport Bridge, with the silver-lining downside of causing parking issues in Newport because of the economic boom.

He goes on to say that the state could definitely find 1/2 of 1% of money out of the $8 billion budget to maintain all bridges with other revenue. He speaks from the experience of one who’s helped the military adjust to the “peace dividend” cuts to military spending that occur when the nation isn’t at war.

6:16 p.m.
Berberick says that the state did no adequate economic analysis (but I’d add that that’s nothing new… even when they do economic impact studies), and that the economic losses would prevent the toll from being “a pure revenue play.”

6:23 p.m.
Former Portsmouth Town Council President Joe Robicheau notes that the state has effectively been funding infrastructure by the equivalent of borrowing the down payment for a mortgage every year for fifty years, which he calls “the height of financial incompetence.”

6:27 p.m.
Now a collection of four business-community representatives. Messages are starting to repeat. (As long as nobody repeats the idea of a mileage tax…)

6:30 p.m.
Bill [something not on the list], of the local chamber, says that the toll would start to pull apart communities that are currently very tightly knit. He also expresses a belief that an in-depth analysis of the economics would find a net revenue loss to the state from the implementation of tolls.

6:33 p.m.
Bill Clark, Portsmouth Director of Business Development, notes that some businesses have a third of their customer bases over the bridge and large portions of their employees from nearby MA cities.

As he talks, I’ll say again: Folks, residents of Rhode Island and the surrounding area have to stop being reactive… waiting for the state government to do something bad and then trying to undo it. That’s why we have the annual cycle through various economic groups to see which can raise enough ruckus to get the Eye of Sauron off of them.

6:38 p.m.
Chris Boyle, of Newport Grand, says his company and others have estimated that upwards of 40% of their customer base comes from Southeast Massachusetts. He says that the recent toll increase on the Newport Bridge cost them 12-15% of their West Bay customers, which loss they’ve whittled away a little bit by pushing transponders.

6:44 p.m.
A Rhode Island moment: Sen. Susan Sosnowski (D, New Shoreham, South Kingstown) called witness Donna LaFleur back to the witness table to ask which town Island Park is in. It’s funny how folks across Rhode Island assume that everybody knows where their small neighborhoods are.

Tiverton Resident Martin Van Hof pointed out something that I’ve said before: if it’s like the Newport Bridge, the Sakonnet River Bridge will not offer discounts for people with work vehicles (whether or not they use them for work). That means about $2,000 just for a daily commute to work over the bridge.

6:51 p.m.
Howard Benesch from Tiverton says that a lot of Tiverton families have two or more members working on the island. If property values in the area fall, he asks, who’s going to make up the lost revenue for the already high-taxing local governments?

Howard Benesch

6:55 p.m.
Benesch has gone on to suggest that the lost local money is ultimately going to come out of students’ education (sports, libraries, and so on). I think he touches on a problem that we’ve got: people in the urban ring and the rest of the state just don’t believe that communities in the East Bay can’t pay more in taxes.

“If we continue with this piecemeal process, we’re not going to make progress as a state.” He points out that MA has half our unemployment rate. “This is a systemic problem.”

6:59 p.m.
Susan Benesch says Tiverton is “like a poor stepchild,” in that it has no state services, notably public transportation.

“I do not want to see the state of Rhode Island begin to become a third-world country because of unfair taxation.”

I can hear the television in the spill-over room echoing down the hallway. I hope a few ears perked up at Mrs. Benesch’s comment.

She says she has been a victim of identity theft, and that the problem will follow her for the rest of her life. The relevance is that she’s heard that the EZ Pass transponder would require her to give over her Social Security number to the transponder contractor.

7:03 p.m.
Ryan Raposa’s family owns the Green Valley country club on Aquidneck Island, and he’s already lost or on track to lose customers amounting to $25,000 of revenue per year, based on simply the threat of tolls.

Ryan Raposa

7:09 p.m.
So far, my favorite quote may be: “Germans will drive 40 to 50 miles for wienerschnitzel.” Walter Guertler’s Bristol restaurant specializes in German cuisine, and many of his customers drive down from Massachusetts, and he does not think they’ll pay an extra $8 to eat dinner. Speaking for all small-businesses in the area, he says the increase in costs will be unsustainable.

Walter Guertler

“You’ll see a depression that you have never seen the likes of with this $4 toll.” He estimates a 20% business failure rate in Bristol.

“Stop crushing us with your foolish, unthoughtout” impositions. He says the whole process is corrupt. “This is a typical Rhode Island underbelly, and I understand that world, because I’m from New Jersey.”

“This puts some political hacks in total control of who gets the favors and who doesn’t.”

7:17 p.m.
Guertler says he knows a lot of wealthy people who drive through Rhode Island going to the Cape. They stop for a day in Newport and move on. He asked them about the tolls, and they all said they would change their route and their practices. It wouldn’t be because of the cost; it would be out of pique at “being abused.”

7:24 p.m.
Tiverton resident Joe Souza says, “we’re the smallest state in the nation,” so why can’t the Department of Transportation maintain all our roads and bridges?

Joe Souza

7:27 p.m.
Ann Fiore owns Glen Ridge Farm, and she says the Newport Bridge toll has already cost her some of her suppliers, who just don’t want to deal with the toll (it’s more for vehicles with trailers).

Ann Fiore

She also offers the familiar anecdote that people go out of their way (around through Fall River) to avoid going over the Newport Bridge. Her mother, from Connecticut, started doing that when the Newport toll went up. Because of the change of route, she ceased her traditional stop to pick up lobsters and pastries.

The anecdote brings something to mind: I recently brought an out-of-state visitor staying in Providence down to Newport for breakfast. It was the first time I’ve been over the Newport Bridge in a while, because I usually just go around. But I thought the bridge would help to give his business trip a vacation-like feel.

He couldn’t believe the toll was $4 and each way. And it certainly tarnishes the advantage of Rhode Island’s size — that it’s possible to traverse the state for a meal, for instance — to tack $8 to the price of breakfast.

7:31 p.m.
Portsmouth Town Council member Liz Pedro points out that statewide tax dollars have gone to bail out Central Falls, Providence, and so on… she says the people on the East Bay don’t want to start being added to that list of failing communities, which the toll would accomplish.

7:40 p.m.
It appears that 7:30 was a sort of curfew for a large portion of the people in the room; a chartered bus to the East Bay is leaving.

Now speaking is Nancy Driggs from Tiverton. She expresses apologies to the committee members who are having to listen to the frustrations of people who haven’t been adequately allowed to speak.

Nancy Driggs

I’d encourage Rhode Islanders not to be so deferential. These legislators are the ones who let these things happen, mostly under the instructions of the backroom deal-makers in the leadership. Sitting here and appearing attentive to testimony is their small task for the perks of office.

(I’ll confess, though, that I’ve never quite understood what those perks are, except of course where there’s corruption, second careers in lobbying, or favors to be traded.)

7:52 p.m.
I’m not going to name names, but it can be difficult to listen to people complain about poor management and government greed from the state when they’ve been at the forefront of the various municipal bonds and spending and public-sector contracts that doubled our property taxes over a decade. Essentially, they’re now making the arguments I’ve made against their poor management and government greed at years’ worth of financial town meetings. More often than not, they were among those jeering and shouting at me as I spoke.

7:58 p.m.
Rick Hodges, of Hodges Badge Company in Portsmouth says that, “ironically,” he moved his business to Rhode Island some years ago to avoid Massachusetts taxes. He says something like 60% of his employees cross a bridge to get to work, and he’s concerned for them.

Rick Hodges

“I don’t think Rhode Island can afford to be losing any more of its manufacturing jobs at this time.”

8:00 p.m.
On a somewhat silver lining note, he says he just rented out an apartment (in Tiverton, I presume) to a couple that’s moving out of the Common Fence Point neighborhood in Portsmouth so they don’t have to pay a toll to commute to work in Massachusetts.

8:02 p.m.
Former state representative Dan Reilly (which is how Sen. Felag, who’s running the meeting, referred to him) is testifying that the Sakonnet River Bridge was never built to be a toll bridge. That wasn’t its intent, and that’s why the money to build it originally came from the pot that it did.

Dan Reilly

8:09 p.m.
A representative of a Middletown business association stressed that much of the local economy relies upon day-trippers from nearby Massachusetts, especially during times when the weather is still good, but not necessarily predictable enough to attract longer-term vacationers, and a toll would affect their decisions.

8:12 p.m.
The president of the Portsmouth Town Council (whose name isn’t on my copy of the list, but somebody subsequently told me in the comments is Jim Seveney) says throughout the whole process, he’s felt as if all of the effort was for naught, because the decision had already been made, but tonight, he feels that maybe that’s not the case. We’ll see.

Sen. Felag stresses the importance of finding funding options. I’ll just say that, especially while researching the sales tax elimination, I’ve come across so much money that could easily be shifted in the budget. There’s really no need to dig for alternate funding mechanisms, like additional inspection or registration fees.

8:15 p.m.
Both bills held for further study, thereby handing decision-making authority to the Senate leadership.

9:42 p.m. (a coda from home)
Anchor Rising’s Monique Chartier caught the tail end of the hearing, and I was chatting with her as I packed up my stuff. Consequently, we were among the last half-dozen people in the hearing room. (We may have been among the last half-dozen people in the building, inasmuch as we had to find our way out of the building through the “sub-basement,” which I’ve never seen before. I do wish I kept a Slinky in my backpack for the rotunda stairs.)

Before we left 313, though, I overheard an insider-type whom I didn’t know ask a reporter from the Bay & Islands area: “Were you surprised that more people didn’t show up?”

The answer was “no.”

I wonder how the legislators weight this stuff. You’ve got 31,000 signatures on petitions. Well, the elected people might ask themselves, where are they all tonight? You’ve got horse farms and country clubs and high-end grocers and German cuisine specialists testifying about costs and lost jobs. Well, the urban legislators looking to grab government handouts for their poorer districts might think, my heart bleeds for you. You’ve got people worrying that East Bay schools will suffer the consequences of tax dollars drained from the area. Well, legislators from cities and towns that are already looking to charge parents additional fees for sports utter under their breaths, join the club.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m on the side of the witnesses. I’d be on their side if they were from Westerly or Foster-Glocester or Southern California. The economics of this are lunacy.

But the State of Rhode Island doesn’t run on economics. It runs on emotion and class warfare. It runs on party loyalty to Democrats almost as an ethnic identity group. It runs on redistributive political vanity. And the people of the East Bay are not much less culpable than anybody else. It’d be very interesting to see how the people who testified against the tolls tonight voted in the last election, and in dozens of elections before that.

Not one witness, tonight, vehemently took Sen. DiPalma to task for wanting to increase inspection fees instead of tolling the bridges. “I’d gladly pay that,” many said. No doubt! $20 every two years versus $2,000 every year. More than one witness called the plan “brilliant.”

But here’s the thing: By the same token, hundreds of thousands of voters, in the districts of every senator and representative who doesn’t represent the East Bay, would rather pay $0 than $20 every two years. Just so, while the price of signing a petition is very low, tens of thousands of East Bay residents apparently find 83-cents a crossing less costly than four hours of hanging out at the State House on a winter Wednesday night.

“Were you surprised that more people didn’t show up?”

The answer was “no.”

Moral vanity, partisan mindlessness, and not having to do the work of paying attention are just too attractive. After all, the people enjoying those benefits of Rhode-apathy won’t have to pay an intolerable price for it. Yet.

Local political post-script:
It occurs to me to note that two members of the Portsmouth Town Council attended the hearing, one of them waiting the full four hours to testify. Not a single member of the Tiverton Town Council bothered to take the stand (and I didn’t see any of them there). I should mention, though, that I was distracted and neglected to list Tiverton School Committee Chairwoman Sally Black and Town Clerk Nancy Mello among those who did testify; and they had to wait until around 8:00, as well.

Also, despite their prominent pledges during the campaign to “oppose the tolls,” the folks from local PAC Tiverton First were nowhere to be found, at least not the organizers.

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