The Lesser Evil Principle on Tolls: What's Best for Middletown?

In political science, the lesser evil principle is that of two bad choices, one is not as bad as the other, and should therefore be chosen.

Tolls might come to the Sakonnet River Bridge.  It’s the proposal Newport County loves to hate.

Petitions are inside dozens of Middletown businesses, residents have organized protests and Patch readers have engaged in, ahem, spirited debates. The Middletown Town Council even passed a resolution in opposition to the proposal.

Nobody likes tolls. Nobody likes getting a cold either.  

But for Middletown, one could argue tolls on the Sakonnet River Bridge could be the lesser of two evils. Here is why.

A quasi-public agency, called the Rhode Island Bridge and Transportation Authority (RIBTA), has been responsible for the Pell Bridge, previously known as the Newport Bridge, as well as the Mt. Hope Bridge, which carries drivers into Bristol, since the 1960s.  Its five-member board is appointed by the governor. It does not receive state or local tax revenue.

RIBTA constructed the Pell Bridge and has maintained the two bridges for the past 50 years with bond obligations that are paid for by tolls. Today there are only tolls on the Pell Bridge.  

The cost of maintenance has grown to the point that the existing toll rate will not be able to cover the debt obligations for the two bridges in the long term.  

Last fall, RIBTA explored the idea of tolls on the Mt. Hope Bridge to offset the rising costs. After several public hearings, RIBTA announced that, come July, they would be forced to increase the tolls on the Pell Bridge instead.

That never happened.

In June, as part of the state budget packet, RIBTA gained jurisdiction over two more bridges -  the Sakonnet River Bridge and the Jamestown Bridge.   With two additional bridges in its portfolio, the proposal is now to install tolls on the Sakonnet River Bridge.

RIBTA officials say this scenario can help offset the burden that has historically been placed on the Pell Bridge, which would postpone a toll increase in Newport for some time.

Shortly after the budget passed, RIBTA formally announced Pell Bridge tolls would not increase.

Rep. Daniel Reilly, who has been a vocal opponent of the Sakonnet River Bridge tolls, urges RIBTA to find another way to avoid toll increases. Some might argue however, that the north-end of the island should pay their fair share.   

What do you think?  If tolls on the River Bridge will help avoid toll increases in Newport, is it the better option for Middletown? Leave your comments below.  If you are not from Middletown, you are welcome to comment, but please specify your town.

Comments must be on-topic, free from profanity and personal attacks against other readers.   Keep in mind that according to Socrates, “when the debate is lost, slander becomes the tool of the loser.”


Portsmouth Citizen November 29, 2012 at 04:30 PM
Bob Parr asks, "Why should those who don't use these bridges pay for their maintenance through taxes?" A reasonable question. Government should do things that foster a flourishing economic environment. Folks always call for Rhode Island to remove obstacles to doing business here. It makes no sense to set up an artificial financial barrier to a free flowing marketplace of commerce. That is why there is no toll on the I-Way bridge. It would be to disruptive of commerce. So too for the Sakonnet Bridge. A commercial environment has developed in the region surrounding the Sakonnet Bridge over the past 50 years based upon toll-free travel through the area. Many companies locate in Tiverton and serve the Island, and vice versa. What might seem to us work-a-day commuters as a "small" 89 cent toll will in fact be a large $4 toll each way for commercial vehicles. A business vehicle making the cross passage many times a day could add up to enough money to make the difference between hiring one more employee or not. We all pay for things with our taxes that we do not use. I don't use the fire department. But I want to pay my taxes so that it is there for all who need it. I don't have any kids in school, but I pay my taxes so the next generation gets an education. We all should pay for the things that foster general prosperity. This is what has made America great and economically powerful. We all benefit from a flourishing economy that unfettered commerce brings.
J. Lane McMahon November 29, 2012 at 07:58 PM
In that vein, Mr. Parr, I have never had children in the Portsmouth school system, should 60%+ of my property taxes be used for the school budget? Should my income tax be used to fund the Central Falls school system? How about if I never call the fire dept? Should I pay for them too? We, as residents of RI, pay for projects outside of our needs and neighborhoods. That's it in a nutshell.
observer January 19, 2013 at 10:55 PM
I live in the north end Portsmouth .And have traveled to work over the Newport bridge for over 35 years. I also travel over the Sakonnet bridge 8 to 10 times a week each way . Tolling this short road is insane. Did'nt they build this bridge with steel that does'nt need to be painted ? Where is all this maintenance comeing from. I can't see how it should cost a million dollars to maintain. And they are looking at revenue of 18 to 20 million. What a joke.


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