“This bridge should not have a toll on it, it’s that simple,”
John Vitkevich stood near the toll gantry on the bike path leading to the Sakonnet River Bridge, as more than 250 local residents assembled for the 5pm protest Sunday night, some waving flags, many carrying signs, and all receiving encouraging honks from the passing traffic on Route 24.
“We knew this in 2002,” Vitkevich told RI Future. Because of significant public opposition at that time, he said, tolling had been eliminated from consideration by RIDOT and the Federal Highway Administration. “Wouldn’t you think that the opposition from 2012 and 2013 was louder, stronger, and more organized than we were ten years ago?”
Apparently so, if last night’s event was any guide. Vitkevich, with his friend Alan Silvia, rallied the crowd through a portable generator and speakers, and the protesters responded with cheers and applause for nearly an hour as speaker after speaker hammered on themes of double-dealing at the general assembly and anger that the East Bay was being unfairly targeted.
“This bridge was free from a toll for 55 years,” Vitkevich told the crowd. “Because it was not maintained, they want us to pay for the new bridge.”
And on this, the toll opponents have a point. The original Sakonnet River Bridge opened on Sept 12, 1956 (at a cost of just $9M). But early in the new century, deterioration began overtake maintenance and by 2007, weight limits were put in place and progressively lowered, while a series of emergency fixes kept the span operational. The new $160M structure opened to traffic late last year, and while construction was managed by RIDOT, operation and maintenance was turned over to the RI Turnpike and Bridge Authority, and that’s where the tolls come in.
“Five million, 176 thousand dollars is what the RI Turnpike and Bridge Authority wants to charge to maintain a brand new bridge,” he said. “Why does Mr. Darlington and Mr. Croft and the RI Turnpike and Bridge Authority need to charge five million dollars? Because they can.”
Not if those assembled had any say about it. In addition to the approaches described on the DontToll.com web site (refuse to use your EZ-Pass, make RITBA send you a bill, and pay with a check) Viktevich also suggested the power of the phone call. “Contact them on Tuesday, contact them on Wednesday, get their number and put it in your speed dial. Harass them. They need to be harassed. Keep harassing them.”
Vitkevich advocated “financial disobedience in a civil way,” but he took care to distance himself from the arsonists who had targeted the toll infrastructure the previous night. “Anything I can do to cost the RITBA legally and ethically, I will do. But I’m not running around with gasoline and matches.”
Only one the East Bay’s representatives was spotted in the crowd, Ray Gallison (D-69 Bristol, Portsmouth). “I agree with everyone that there should not be tolls here” Gallison told RI Future. “The I-Way bridge is maintained by taxpayers, Henderson bridge is being maintained by taxpayers, all of the other bridges all over the state.”
About a dozen attendees took turns at the mic to at attack RITBA, the Governor, and the 11th hour reversal of the toll decision at the general assembly. On June 26, the budget, including a toll deferral and the first-years’s bond payments for 38 Studios, squeaked through the House, supported by votes of East Bay legislators. Then, on July 2nd, just before recess, a rider was introduced that reversed course and instituted the ten-cent toll as a placeholder pending the recommendation of a study commission. Opinion in the crowd was that local legislators had been duped. “Once the 38 Studios vote came in I said, whoops, that’s it, slippery slope, we’re done,” Portsmouth resident Kathy Melvin told RI Future. “I’m amazed that the legislators didn’t know they were cooked.”
Listening in the crowd, carrying hand-made signs, Tiverton residents Rosemary DeMello and Denise Lach had walked over the bridge to join to protest. “This is not right,” DeMello said. “This has never been a toll bridge, and now they’re going to put a toll on it to pay for the other bridges in Rhode Island,”
“Local people should certainly be exempt from the tolls,” said Lach. “I travel to the Island a lot. We’re always over there.”
As protestors began to drift off and the organizers were wrapping cables and packing up speakers, Vitkevich evaluated the impact of the event. “What happened here today,” said Vitkevich, “was the start of taking this down.”