12/04/12 – Sakonnet River Bridge Public Hearing, Tiverton

7:08 p.m.
If I’ve ever seen this many people at Tiverton High School, it hasn’t been often. Clearly tolls are an unpopular proposition. I can only imagine the effect that it would have had if this many people had been at the State House to testify against tolls in the Finance Hearings and when the budget was on the floor of the House and Chamber.

At this point, the image that comes to mind is of the Whos, as in Horton Hears a Who, chanting, “We are here! We are here!” Frankly, I worry that the Whos had better odds of accomplishing their goal than the taxpayers of the East Bay have of accomplishing theirs.

7:14 p.m.
RIDOT chief Michael Lewis is explaining that all of the debt service from past transportation borrowing and all of the other uses of gas-tax money use up the better part of the state’s transportation money.

Rhode Islanders who voted for all of the bond issues on the last budget should learn their lesson, and the crowd in this room should focus its attention on the legislators. There are two options: stop spending and increase taxes, fees, and tolls. The bottom line is that people who want transportation to be among the first things budgeted for out of regular state funding need to start putting people into office who see things the same way.

7:18 p.m.
I see some of the area’s state legislators — Sen. Walter Felag, Sen. Lou DiPalma, Sen. Chris Ottiano. I’m sure there are more here, but I don’t see them. Rep. Doreen Costa has traveled all the way from the other side of the bay.

I don’t see Senators Reed or Whitehouse or Congressmen Langevin or Cicilline. Or, more importantly, Governor Chafee.

7:20 p.m.
Lewis says that this bridge toll only addresses the Sakonnet Bridge and the Jamestown Bridge. Funny thing is, a lot of the legislators who voted to put permission for the toll in the budget back in June really seemed to believe that the bridges in their parts of the state would be benefiting from the funds from this toll.

7:24 p.m.
By the way, here are the relevant vote tallies.

7:29 p.m.
Somebody in the audience raised his hand and said he has a letter from the federal government that says that there are no additional steps to be completed in order to authorize the tolls. Mr. Lewis said that is not true. The guy said he’d forward the letter, and then he left.

7:31 p.m.
Lewis says they need $38 million per year between the two tolled bridges to cover maintenance of all four bridges to the islands, and that the tolls will only be enough to cover that amount. Nobody joked that if you believe that he’s got a bridge to Aquidneck Island he’d like to sell you.

7:33 p.m.
While talking about the rates currently charged on the Newport Bridge, Lewis kind of glossed over the fact that “commercial” vehicles are charged the out-of-state rate, and that in RI standard work trucks are “commercial” whether or not they are, in fact, used commercially.

7:34 p.m.
On the Newport Bridge, about 15% of traffic pays the full $4, while 70% pay 83-cents. He says, “there may be opportunities” to only charge each car once in a 24 hour period. An audience member called out to say that the Bridge and Turnpike Authority would make that decision, so he can’t really offer that as a real possibility.

Lewis said it was a fair point, the audience started to bubble with unrest. New Town Council President Ed Roderick instructed the audience to “allow Mr. Lewis to go on with the presentation.”

I’m wondering why the Bridge and Turnpike Authority isn’t up in the front of the room.

7:39 p.m.
A Rick Gobeil from DOT is presenting a traffic analysis study. He says, at the Newport Bridge rate, 21% of the Sakonnet Bridge traffic would go away… some going through Bristol to go over the Mount Hope Bridge and some not crossing at all. He seemed to be hedging about the consequence and people started shouting out, “Say Bristol!”

Lewis is letting elected officials talk first. I don’t really get that. They should be up at the front of the room with Lewis.

Felag first.

7:42 p.m.
Felag says he “vehemently opposes” the tolls and that they are the biggest issue he’s faced as an elected official. The audience cheered… kind of a softball issue for an elected official.

I want to know why the elected officials weren’t running around town with their hair on fire when it began to look like the toll might actually go through. I also want to know if they’ll vow to refuse to support any legislation from leadership or anybody who won’t vote to repeal the toll.

7:45 p.m.
Boos at the mention of Gov. Chafee. By the way, this is very similar to what Felag said on the floor of the Senate when the tolls were up for a vote.

7:48 p.m.
Now he’s saying that he puts in legislation to reduce the gas tax because too many cars cross to MA to buy gas. I believe Mr. Felag’s sincerity, but with his contrary opinions, he should be much more disruptive of the status quo at the State House.

Felag finished up saying things like, “we helped out Central Falls; let’s help out Tiverton.” Loud cheers.

7:50 p.m.
Resident Nancy Driggs asked if it matters what sorts of complaints people make. “Is it just that you have to show that you filed this thing that you talked to us?”

Lewis says the feds take their responsibility seriously.

7:51 p.m.
Driggs asked why the idea of tolls on Mt. Hope went away. Lewis says that this toll obviated those discussions.

Driggs paraphrased and Lewis assented: “So anybody who voted for this budget cut short other options because this legislation superseded it?”

7:54 p.m.
Next questioner (from Bristol) was clearly at the meeting last night. He asks why other revenue can’t be found. Lewis said every change in revenue has an effect on somebody.

The speaker made the excellent point that with 60% of traffic being local, the money comes from them one way or another, whether they get daily discounts or whatever.

He also suggested that his town of Bristol will become a big traffic jam during rush hour.

7:59 p.m.
Town Council President Ed Roderick is reading a prepared statement about how the “hard working” people locally “are indeed part of Rhode Island.” Not for nothing, but I’d be curious to compare the cost of the average property tax increase that Roderick has supported over the years with the cost of the average bridge crosser with tolls.

8:04 p.m.
Town Council Member Jay Lambert is listing all of the big chain stores (and Clements Market) on the island that he regularly patronizes. I wonder why he doesn’t shop more often in town, like at Tom’s Market.

8:06 p.m.
Lambert asked what would happen if RIDOT has investigated the effect on the town if RI added a toll on the bridge and MA added a toll on the border. I’m not sure that would ever happen, though, because it’d be extremely easy to evade and, unlike Rhode Island, Massachusetts seems to want Rhode Islanders to shop and do business there.

8:12 p.m.
At this point, it’s going to take over an hour for the people already online to get to the microphone. Seems a little unfair that elected officials who attended the hearing last night are reading prepared statements at this one.

8:14 p.m.
Another speaker who attended last night and has more questions and a prepared statement. “We know that government grows when times are good, and government grows when times are bad.” He’s quoting Rep. Joe Trillo from the House Floor: “You people are a bunch of pickpockets.” He referenced the governor’s practice of splitting up his residences to decrease his tax burden.

Responding to a question, Lewis said the tolls will only pay for the bridges. Pressed, he admitted that the legislation allows it to be spent elsewhere, as well.

I really wish the people who are clapping opposition statements understand that even our representatives, who say the right things in this context, are no better than the others on all of the other taxing, spending, and regulation that constitutes the root cause of the problems that are bringing us the toll.

8:22 p.m.
Rep. Jay Edwards asked what happens with excess funds collected, asking whether they would reduce the toll. (I’m wondering: Isn’t that ultimately up to the legislature?)

Somebody from Lincoln is speaking in favor of the tolls. Shouts are raining down from the audience. “Sit down!” He says, “I wish I could live on an island.” He’s says Portsmouth, Bristol, and Tiverton are the richest people in Rhode Island.

Wonder what this guy is thinking.

8:26 p.m.
I should note, though, that he did us the favor of illustrating the attitude of the rest of the state toward this area. That’s part of why our representatives really need to step up their game at the State House.

8:34 p.m.
A man from Fall River apologizes because he was running for Congress, meaning that he didn’t have the ability to follow this issue as closely as it required.

He refers to the commentary on the Helen Glover Show this morning talking about economic effects.

8:39 p.m.
In response to a question from another Fall River resident Lewis is explaining that this process is not the same as some states are seeing, where a private company takes control over a road and collects tolls at a profit.

8:42 p.m.
A Portsmouth resident who operates a business in Tiverton says his wife is counting the family’s trips over the bridge, and it’s going to be “a huge tax.”

8:43 p.m.
The next speaker, who used to work for a governor in RI, thanked Lewis for being here and told the audience that he’s not the guy who should be here.

He says the traffic analysis has a built in fallacy, namely that the analysis should include the impact on the broader economy, not just the number of cars that cross the bridge.

8:46 p.m.
Lewis affirmed the assertion that, on day one, the tolls would begin paying debt service.

8:49 p.m.
It occurs to me to mention that even an 83 cent toll twice a day every day, which is probably going to be pretty common around here, adds up to over $600 a year.

Next speaker expresses hope that Governor Chafee (“the king”) is “never reelected.” He’s calling for people in the room to walk onto the bridge and block it on the day the tolls go into effect. That is, “civil disobedience.”

“Take the government back. We’ve got people dying overseas to promote democracy, and we don’t even have it at home.”

Frankly, I agree with the sentiment, but the reality is that we Rhode Islanders voted for this government. And we hardly ever change the incumbents. The tolls are the latest acute pain to a long, dull throb of apathy.

“You don’t ask the government to consider you. You tell the government what you want because you elected them.”

8:53 p.m.
The next speaker says she is an ironworker, and she says a toll will lead her to stop working with the state, because she’s sure the system is corrupt.

8:54 p.m.
Chris Cotta, who works for the Attorney General’s office and is one of the highest paid employees of the state, says he wants to talk about equity.

8:57 p.m.
Cotta points out all of the houses up for sale in Tiverton. Funny, I was telling him that for years as he worked as Budget Committee chairman and otherwise to double property taxes in a decade.

9:01 p.m.
A spokesperson for “Preserve Portsmouth” just read a statement promising legal action to protect the Constitutional rights that, she says, a toll would violate.

9:03 p.m.
The next speaker was also at the meeting last night. Now he’s saying he went home and asked himself, “What can I do,” but he realize the question is “what can you [Mr. State Official] do.” The speaker says he’s never gone to a public meeting before.

I really hate to be the gloomy cynic in the audience, but man, it’s hard not to wonder where all these people were back in June. Where were the state reps and senators from the East Bay, who should have been going door to door and warning people and making newsworthy stands at the State House… even promising never, ever to vote for leadership-backed legislation if a toll appeared.

That would have gotten attention, and it might have gotten all these hundreds of people to fill the State House. I wonder: Will they be at the State House now for the next affront to taxpayers? For that matter, will they be at the Town Hall and the School Committee meetings?

9:06 p.m.
A speaker says that a third of the gas tax goes to RIPTA, but RIPTA doesn’t offer service out here and the state road she lives on hasn’t been paved in years.

9:07 p.m.
Next speaker says the taxes are high enough in this town, “not to mention a flimsy garbage bag” that we now have to use for curbside pickup because the town didn’t properly plan for closing its dump.

He should have thanked the town council members whom everybody cheered earlier for that one.

9:12 p.m.
A speaker from Providence says she believes Rhode Island is a small state, and “we’re all in this together,” so she opposes the tolls. She says that not funding the bridges was wrong, that infrastructure should be the first thing paid for.

She thinks the state should reduce pensions of those who’ve been in government for years and years and failed to take care of the state. She also points out that the gas tax isn’t the only source of government revenue that can be used for roads and bridges. She also points out that our tax dollars went to create the PowerPoint presentations being used to sell the tolls. In closing, she says we shouldn’t pay off the Studio 38 bonds, because it’s a moral obligation, not a general obligation bond.

9:29 p.m.
A woman who runs her own one-person business caring for Alzheimer patients says she grew up on Aquidneck Island and moved to Tiverton 12 years ago. For years, she says, she went to meetings at the Portsmouth town hall at which the state declared that there would never, ever be a toll on the Sakonnet River Bridge.

9:35 p.m.
A woman who owns a local pet grooming business notes that she’s now collecting taxes for that, this year. She asks why gas tax revenue has been decreasing… and answers her question, saying that people are crossing the border to buy gas in MA.

She says her business pays 13 different taxes each month.

She also calculated out one crossing of the bridge per day at the 83 cent rate and made a point that it’s money for groceries and so on. I made a similar statement at a Tiverton financial town meeting about a property tax increase of about the same size a few years ago, and the local people who wanted more money in the budget (mainly the teachers’ union) jeered at me.

Some of them have spoken quite heatedly about how unfair the toll would be.

9:40 p.m.
Next speaker: “We’ve set up a psychological barrier around Rhode Island saying, ‘Don’t come here.'”

9:42 p.m.
Next speaker says nobody here should think showing up tonight is sufficient. “Wake up in the morning, have your coffee, and email the governor.”

He should expand it to include being involved more generally.

By the way, he clarified with Lewis that this is a public hearing, but that all of the comments will be in the record given to the federal government. The qualifier that nobody seems to be noticing is that the people who will review this record at the federal level will be looking at environmental impact, not economic impact.

9:52 p.m.
School Committee Chairwoman Sally Black tells Lewis that the people of Tiverton “believe in public infrastructure.” In fact, she says, we recently built three new elementary schools and just voted to build a new library.

So much for the argument that Rhode Islanders in this area can’t afford the toll any better than communities elsewhere in the state.

10:05 p.m.
And here comes the old Rhode Island… a speaker just noticed that Gov. Chafee’s father left the governorship and joined the federal government and was key to removing military from Aquidneck Island, and now his son is putting up a toll. He’s asserting that there’s something personal that the Chafee family has against the island.

Shouts of “Vendetta!” from the audience.

Crowd thinning quite a bit, as might be expected. I see that Ed Roderick is back in line to speak again…

10:11 p.m.
You’d think Mr. Lewis would every now and then inform the audience that the testimony would be most valuable if it were focused on the environmental impact. That he doesn’t do so indicates that this meeting is meant as a steam-blowing exercise and not a serious information-gathering exercise.

By the way, we’ve now clarified that the value to the rest of the state is that we will now take no money from the other funds for East Bay bridges, explicitly freeing that up for the rest of the state. As we fiscal hawks have been arguing for years, money is fungible.

Lewis says toll rates will go up over time.

10:16 p.m.
The current speaker works for the federal government and notes that he’s gotten no raise in some years, and yet Rhode Island has enacted a “stealth income tax increase” (meaning the “reform”) to create a surplus. Why not use the surplus for these purposes? he asks.

The speaker is suggesting that RI should lower taxes in order to increase revenue.

10:21 p.m.
Resident Jeff Belli is addressing the lone state representative still in the room, Sen. Lou DiPalma, and saying he stood with Paiva-Weed when he voted for the budget that included the tolls. He then said the only ones who didn’t were Felag and Edwards, but people in the audience corrected him that Edwards voted for the budget.

10:39 p.m.
A surprising number of people drive from the Fall River/Little Compton area to work in Quonset.

The current speaker is joining several previous speakers in pointing out that the maintenance cost of the Sakonnet River Bridge will be much, much less than on the bigger, older suspended bridges, making it even more manifestly unfair to charge its users to maintain all of the bridges.

10:44 p.m.
Present speaker just finished saying, “We the people have had enough.” Not to contradict sentiments with which I wholly agree, but I didn’t see any evidence in the last election, at any level of government, that the people have had enough of what they’ve been getting.

10:46 p.m.
Roderick is reading a letter on behalf of his wife.

I think I’m going to have to call it a night.

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