After Tolls: A New Level of Cynicism

On yesterday’s Buddy Cianci show on WPRO, guest host John Loughlin didn’t quite buy my interpretation of legislative events surrounding the Sakonnet River Bridge toll controversy.

The short summary is that — while moving ownership of the East Bay bridges from the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) to the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority (RITBA) — the General Assembly approved the option of putting tolls on the Sakonnet River Bridge that spans from Portsmouth to Tiverton. Last year, during the debate over the budget article on the floor of the RI House of Representatives, it was clear that representatives from other parts of Rhode Island saw the tolls as a way to direct more state funds toward their own towns, while setting off the East Bay as an area responsible for its own maintenance.

This angle is newly important, with a reminder, today, that looming increases in license and registration fees will go to a dedicated maintenance account for the RIDOT. Presumably, transferring the bridges to RITBA leaves that extra money for roads and bridges elsewhere.

As expected, RITBA opted to implement tolls, and they were slated to begin this month.  Throughout this legislative session, residents of the East Bay organized, and (by necessity) representatives and senators from the area made stopping the tolls a visible issue for themselves.

On budget night in the House, a surprise amendment postponed the tolls until at least February of next year and created a commission to look for alternatives.  As Representative Jeremiah O’Grady (D, Lincoln, Pawtucket) put it during debate, they were hoping for “a breakthrough” that would remove the need for tolls.  A week later, however, a surprise “trailer” amended the amendment to implement tolls in August. The cost will be a dime, yes, but it can be raised automatically six months later or so, and the commission’s mission will no longer be to find an alternative, but to develop a comprehensive plan for bridges across the state.

Loughlin sees, in this history, evidence that the East Bay representatives and senators were “snookered” — that is, that House and Senate leadership put out the bait of toll postponement until next session to secure enough votes on their budget and then closed the trap after the fact by taking the air out of an already-inflated promise.  Given that interpretation, he sees no option for elected officials from the area but to noisily resign from leadership positions and perhaps look for a changing of the guards.

The two pieces of evidence that John finds persuasive are (1) testimonies from people inside state government as to the East Bay reps’ state of mind, and (2) the “victory lap” that Representative John Edwards (D, Portsmouth, Tiverton) took through the RI media between the toll delay and the supposed snookering.

Neither of those pieces of evidence is inconsistent with my view that it would be more accurate to infer that the East Bay representatives and senators (all but one, Democrats) were aware of what was to come, and that much of the legislative activity on the issue, this session, was designed to allow them to gain voter support for their toll opposition without actually stopping the tolls.

On budget night number 2, representatives asked if it was true that federal law would prevent the state from putting tolls on the bridge if it did not do so right away.  (That was the subsequent rationale for the 10-cent imposition.)  That idea had made its way to the press pool as early as the night before (see the note at 9:42 p.m. here).

Now that we’ve seen the whole performance through the first time, take a look at Warwick Representative Frank Ferri’s comments at 165:30 during the discussion on the 26th. He asks if it’s true that the authority to put up tolls would go away if delayed, looking at Rep. Peter Martin (D, Newport) who had just said as much.

From my own video of the night, I can tell you that Martin nodded his head and then raised his hand and stood to talk.  The Capitol TV video even cuts to him when Ferri sits down, expecting a response, but a clearly abashed Ferri lets the question slide as Speaker Gordon Fox (D, Providence) mumbles something about the question’s being “to no one in particular.”  On my video, you can see Martin look around and then, a long 10 seconds later, sit down.

On July 2, when the tolls reemerged, Edwards told Rhode Island Public Radio’s Ian Donnis that he accepts the rationale for the start of the tolls and doesn’t feel misled. (See the note at 6:23 p.m. here.)

Now turn to the video at 32:00 on that night.  Watch the entire debate on the bill (if you can stand it), and you’ll see what I saw: The representatives from the East Bay gave tepid, canned speeches, and it was the representatives from other parts of the state who mounted the most significant challenge to the “snookering.”  Better yet, watch the House Finance Committee hearing a little bit earlier.  Some people call out from the audience seeking to be heard (and are studiously ignored except for a quick flutter of the eye by acting chairwoman Eileen Naughton [D, Warwick]), but where are the East Bay representatives shouting out points of order and objections?  Where is the rhetorical fire from Rep. Ray Gallison (D, Bristol, Portsmouth) on the committee?

Or move over to the Senate, where the Finance Committee didn’t even have a hearing on the toll return (and, unfortunately, Capitol TV doesn’t have video available online).  In order to even vote on the bill without a hearing, leadership had to ask for “unanimous consent” to consider it.  Nobody objected.  Not a single senator.

There are two possibilities, here.  Either the representatives and senators of the East Bay were in on the snookering (meaning that it was their constituents who were the target), or they are so thoroughly in support of the leadership — and the methods of the legislature more broadly — that they effectively consented to be misled.

Personally, I believe Rep. Edwards when he says that he was not misled.  That leaves only one possibility.

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