I am the Rhode Island State Coordinator for the Progressive Democrats of America. My primary interest is Rhode Island's economy and what we can do to fix it.

21 responses to “Why the Sakonnet River Bridge tolls matter”

  1. Tom Sgouros

    I’m somewhat sympathetic to the argument about the regressive nature of tolls, but wake me up when any of the anti-toll folks mobilized for this fight calls for more progressive tax legislation to support bridge maintenance, or anything else.  Principles are important, but so is expedience.  They are both values that guide sensible legislation, and discarding either one gets you in trouble.

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  2. Barry

    I don’t think tolls, or user fees are particularly regressive, those too poor to afford cars don’t pay them and that is over 10% of RI households.  Adding to the marginal cost of driving is  good way to reducing driving and its environmental impact.  Tolls encourage carpooling, and transit use and progressives should support that.  And out of staters will help pay for RI infrastructure with tolls, just as RIers do for other states when we use toll roads in NY, MA, NH, ME etc. 
    I resent the idea that folks who want expensive infrastructure (ca $200 million for the Sakonnet Bridge) don’t want to pay for it.  75 cents for regular users is very low, far below a bus ride and even less than the Newport tolls.  What whiners the opponents are, and since a 10 cent toll cannot reasonably be collected, the whole thing is likely to lead yet again to deferred maintenance.  And new bonding is a terrible idea, in that bonding instead of paying directly is what got RIDOT behind in the first place, and a recent study indicated we need $285 million/year more in transportation revenues to cach up, tolls would have been a reasonable start.
    Finally, the legisalture is yet again so irresponsible, they knew long ago what the issues were but waited until the very last minute to come up with an unworkable plan.

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  3. Jeremy Rix

    Tolls are generally regressive and waste fuel, and this one is no exception.  Many who would otherwise use Rte 24 to reach Bristol (including Roger Williams University), Portsmouth/Middletown/Newport will take Rte 136 as an alternative.  This will waste gas, for both those who would otherwise take Rte 24 and those already on 136 (Barrington, Warren, and Bristol), causing greater congestion on an already busy road, vs. a relatively uncrowded highway (similar to Rte 295).  A proposed discount plan for $360/year is still a hit for all of those students and workers commuting across the bridge.  That’s over a week’s pay for someone working full-time on minimum wage.  It’s a big chunk of cash for a student borrowing at 6.8% or worse.  

    It will change driving habits, but probably not for the better–unless RIPDA suddenly expands on the east bay.  The buses are quite inconvenient in that part of the state.  Or, for those commuting from MA (Seekonk, Swansea, Fall River, New Bedford, etc.) buses aren’t even an option, unless one drives 15+ minutes to a park & ride.  Many students and people with lower income live in places like Fall River and commute to east bay RI, as renting in Bristol, Warren, Barrington, Tiverton, etc. as affordable rents are not available.

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  4. DogDiesel

    Whiners??? Really? When the tolls go up and the money is redirected elsewhere all the whiners’ fears will have come true. It won’t be a whine but more like history repeating itself. It’s a Rhode Island story.

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  5. transportprovidence

    Barry is right about tolls not being regressive:
    People should pay tolls for highway infrastructure.  

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  6. cailin rua

    Some have touched on some deep and far reaching issues where this bridge is concerned.

    Someone linked to a story about “car subsidies”.  Really?  That expression is obviously designed to frame an argument in such a way to guilt those who have little to do with the problem of suburban sprawl.  Car ownership is not about privilege.  Car ownership, for those living away from urban centers, is a matter of survival, not privilege.  I lived in South County for years.  I know this truth.  The $2.00 toll on the Newport Bridge was a severe hardship for me in the seventies.  I tried surviving without a car.  It was impossible.

    It seems the status has changed but the backers of the Pell Bridge had it written into law that there could be no tolls on the Jamestown Bridge because it was determined, through traffic engineering studies, that toll collection at the Jamestown Bridge  would have a negative impact on revenue collection at the Newport Bridge.  Are there any current proposals to collect tolls on the Jamestown-Verrazano Bridge?  

    Someone remarked about the hardships imposed on Pell Bridge users in a comment thread to another post on the same subject.  I don’t think that is a fair comparison.  I think the Sakonnet River Bridge is more analogous to the Jamestown Verrazano Bridge situtuation.  The bridge from Tiverton to Portsmouth was there before the replacement bridge was built.  The economy in that locale, to a certain degree, has been established for decades and based on being able to move people, goods and services across a bridge without the burden of a toll.  The situation in Newport was far different.  I remember traveling to the 1968 Jazz Festival on the Jamestown Newport Ferry.  It was the only way to get to Newport at the time.  

    When the Newport Bridge was built, it opened up commerce between two sides of the bay that had been previously separated.  It represented a boost to the local economies on both sides of the bridge.  In spite of the tolls charged, access to Newport from South County created an opportunity to put money into people’s pockets that hadn’t existed before.  The Sakonnet River Bridge scenario is very different.  It imposes costs on people that didn’t exist before.  People who are carpenters, restaurant workers, painters, housecleaners, landscapers, etc. traveling to Bristol and Portsmouth from Tiverton, Fall River, Westport and  so forth, will be particularly hard hit.  The Sakonnet River Bridge will not open up any new economic opportunities the way the Newport Bridge did.  On the contrary, the imposition of exorbitant tolls will create a new burden.

    Suburban sprawl and the effect it has had on the American way of life is certainly a topic on which a lot of time needs to be spent.  If anyone really is interested in tackling those issues it is a matter of speaking truth to the powers that have created the mess we live in.  It’s time to stop beating up on the powerless who are just trying to get along.

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  7. transportprovidence

    I wouldn’t subscribe to the view that drivers are necessarily privileged.  What the article I linked to says is not that drivers are inherently privileged, but rather that those who don’t drive are disproportionately underprivileged, having little wealth and income compared to society as a whole.  I think anyone can see that this has important implications for the argument that tolling is/isn’t regressive, even though the relationship between wealth and owning a car is not a one-to-one relationship.
    Not having a system of tolls, not having a high enough gas tax, not charging enough for parking, etc., all amount to false examples of “progressive” outreaches to the poor, because they not only make those things cheap, but they also completely reshape the way that we design our lived world.  It might be expensive to own a car in Europe, but that expense is part of what makes it possible to craft good rail, bus, trolley, and bike policies.  We have to account for the fact that highway infrastructure is extremely, extremely expensive, and does not solve the problems of mobility that we need to solve in an economically (and not even to mention environmentally) sustainable way.
    Take the analogy of healthcare.  I believe that all people should have healthcare, as I’m sure most of the readers of this blog do.  Should we provide healthcare, though, primarily at the end stages of disease, when its expense will be largest and its positive effects the least felt?  Or should we overhaul our healthcare system to provide preventative care, so that people largely fail to get sick in the first place?  We’ve all identified that there is a problem in our infrastructure system of it being expensive and not properly serving our needs.  Continuing to try to alleviate the pressure of the failure by not tolling for highways is a false hope, and doesn’t deal with the roots of the problem.

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    1. cailin rua

      “A carbon tax, for example, would make cars pay their true market cost for socialized infrastructure like highways, but the dominant way of viewing such a tax–perhaps because its championed this way by liberals–is that it’s not about market costs, but about altruistic collective action. ”

      “true market cost for socialized infrastructure like highways


      I don’t know where you are coming from but . . . o k the poor poor carless people are forced to subsidize people who have cars.  I think I’ve heard that argument before:

      “I am young and healthy.  Why should I contribute to social security and medicare?”  or “I don’t have children.  Why should I have to chip in for public education?”  or “My children go to private school.  It costs me a fortune.  Why should I have to pay for public education on top of what I already pay?”

      I remember Reagan’s inauguration address, delivered twenty minutes before the Iran hostages landed in Germany.  Behind him was a banner that heralded what was labeled “The New Federalism”.  It was a typo.  It was supposed to have read, “The New Feudalism.”  I think I get your point. 
      Howzbout we pay the “true market costs” for the infrastructure developed by African American slaves, Irish and Chinese Immigrants . . . with interest.  That would be a real “free market” solution.  



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  8. transportprovidence

    I don’t subscribe to any of the horrid right-wing nonsense you’re trying to attach to me.  I believe that we should have a strong progressive taxation system.  I believe in Social Security.  And I’ve spent a lot of my time as an activist for single-payer healthcare.  My point is that not everything has to be a progressive tax in order for the overall system to run progressively.  If you would have quoted more heavily from the article (http://www.transportprovidence.blogspot.com/2013/07/the-allure-of-car-centric-populism.html), you would find that I explained that I don’t even think tolls are regressive, and that they’re certainly less regressive than the proposal in Bell’s article for a higher sales tax.
    Question:  Would you likewise portray our huge military outlay as progressive, because it’s collective in nature?  The argument I’m making is not at all that all government spending is bad, or that we should try to implement austerity for the welfare state.  I’m just pointing out that not all government spending is good, and that some of it has overtly bad results.
    I think all the ranting about Chinese immigrants and African-Americans is particularly odd, since America’s highway system was developed largely by demolishing the neighborhoods of black people.  It’s sad that you don’t recognize that legacy as you write.

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  9. cailin rua

    I suppose I got carried away at the end of my reply to you, transportprovidence.  I was thinking of railroads. Railroads are an important part of the infrastructure, “socialized” or not, aren’t they? My comment about “a free market solution” was absurd.  I think the notion of “free markets” is absurd, though.  Is there really such a thing?  What does “free” mean in an historical context?  Using the expression “market cost” might have been a better choice.  Who determines market costs? How are the costs paid for and by whom. 

    The expression “market costs” is your own.  Then you use the term “socialized infrastructure”.  You suggest, at the very least, that market forces should drive public transportation policy.  Do I have that wrong?  I understand the devastation caused to neighborhoods in inner cities by the interstate highway planning that had little regard for those without economic and political power but it  seems to me that letting the market drive public policy is what got us the suburban sprawl we have today.  
    I don’t think the situation in Tiverton/Portsmouth has much relation to the need for better mass transit or better infrastructure planning.  I am confused about the tolls on the bridge.  I thought there were proposals that would put the tolls in the range of the Pell Bridge tolls.  The 10¢ toll seems ridiculous.  

    I think Sam makes some very good points.  I didn’t get from what he wrote that he was for raising the sales tax to pay for the bridge.  

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    1. cailin rua

      I suppose I’m beating a dead horse but  I wrote:

      I thought there were proposals that would put the tolls in the range of the Pell Bridge tolls.  The 10¢ toll seems ridiculous.  

      This article explains the reason for the toll:


      which is to keep the door open for tolls in the range proposed by the RIBTA:

      $5.25 per crossing for cars without an E-ZPass transponder, $3.75 per crossing for cars with an E-ZPass transponder from another state and 75 cents for cars with a Rhode Island E-ZPass transponder.

      In 1969 people could buy tokens @ a cost of a dollar per trip, which would have reduced the toll on the Newport/Pell Bridge to six dollars a trip in today’s dollars.  The minimum wage was almost $10.50 in 1968 if calculated in today’s dollars.  A round trip for a Fall River resident would be 7.50 with a transponder, not 4.00.  Some people who do not travel across the bridge on a daily basis will either have to pay for  transponder or fork over 10.50 for a round trip.  

      Fall River is not San Francisco.  Portsmouth is not Marin County.  I don’t recall congestion being a problem on the old Sakonnet River Bridge.  It takes two bridges to get to Newport from Saunderstown.  It only takes one to get to Portsmouth from Tiverton.  If the Newport Bridge tolls were 12.00 in today’s adjusted for inflation dollars then tolls for the Pell Bridge today are only a third of what tolls used to be in the Seventies.

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  10. transportprovidence

    I think many liberals are familiar with the terms “socialism for the rich” and “corporate welfare”.  I would suggest that while highway spending is not quite socialism for the rich, it certainly is not socialism for the poor.  I think it’s important to differentiate different types of spending, and talk about who is benefited most by different types of policy choices we make.
    Ha-Joon Chang is a really great economist who is left-leaning, and he talks about how there isn’t really anything like a totally “free” market.  I agree with that, and what you’re saying.  Every market has some kind of rules, some kind of public expenditures, some kind of contraints and freedoms.  For lack of a better term though, I think “market cost” is a good way to talk about how expensive highways are.
    An urban highway costs around $6 Million per lane-mile.  One mile, one lane.  That’s a lot of money.  Our goal is not to transport people by highway.  Our goal is to transport people, period.  Highways will be part of our expenditure for getting people around, but they can’t be the first (or even second) tool in our tool box.  They should be something reserved for the limited cases in which they are useful.
    Let’s talk about how to deal with traffic, and getting people around.  Muenster city government in Germany created a great image showing how different modes of transportation use space, as a means of explaining why getting people into buses or onto bikes was good for cars as well (see image at http://www.geo.sunysb.edu/bicycle-muenster/traffic.jpg).  On a bridge like the Sakonnet, there really ought to be one lane in each direction that is *only* accessible to buses.  That way, people who choose to take a bus get there faster.  And you know what, because those people take their cars off the road, it also benefits the remaining drivers in the other two lanes.  
    I am encouraged to find that the new bridge will have some kind of bicycle access (at least according to the Wikipedia article on it).  That’s a start.  Bus lanes should be the next item. . . 

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  11. Peter Brassard

    If tolls are inherently unfair because its one of the worst regressive taxes that penalizes the poorest of drivers, then even if they’re not taxes, requiring car insurance or annual inspections or registration fees at the same rates are similarly regressive because there’s no adjustment or relief for the economically disadvantaged. The same goes for the gas tax.
    A $2 toll was a lot of money to pay in 1970. However, since the Newport Bridge opened it was always possible to get a discounted toll. Adjusted for inflation that 1970 $2 toll would be the a little over $12 in 2013. Asking a Sakonnet Bridge user to pay a 75¢ (or $4 for out of state users) for a toll in 2013 isn’t anything close to asking them to pay $12.
    Rhode Island has four major ocean-type or bay bridges (Jamestown, Newport, Mt. Hope, and Sakonnet), which are not typical highway infrastructure and much more expensive to maintain than other bridges or roads. For decades the residents of the southern end of Aquidneck Island and South County have shouldered the burden of supporting the maintenance of three of those bay bridges.
    If the four bay bridges were never build residents on opposite sides of water would be using ferries at a much greater cost instead. There is nowhere else in the state where such a condition exists. The closest might be Washington Bridge, but actually it isn’t because even if the bridge was out of commission or not there, no matter how inconvenient people would still have a land route if they drive north to cross from east to west. 
    Tolls on the Newport Bridge have not deterred tourist from coming to Newport. Many commuters, commercial drivers, and tourist prefer paying the toll on Newport Bridge, instead of driving through Fall River or Bristol because coming from Providence the Jamestown/Newport Bridge combination cuts the travel time down by 10 to 15 minutes.
    The General Assembly did flip-flop at the last minute approving a 10¢ toll on the Sakonnet Bridge after approving a bill to wait for recommendations from Sakonnet Bridge toll study. The reason why they changed their minds is that if they had waited for the toll study to be completed by the end of this year or beginning of next, due to federal rules the state would have lost the opportunity to ever place tolls on the new span.  This might have made the anti-toll supporters very happy, but would have been foolhardy for the state to loose its ability to toll the bridge in the future without waiting for the findings in the study results.
    Regarding the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority (RITBA) bonding capacity, by not implementing the full tolls as they were planned to start in July 2013, a shortfall of $16-million will be created for the RITBA, putting its bond rating at risk. A RITBA bond rating downgrade could affect the state government’s bond rating as well.
    Not including bridge replacements, there’s no comparison to the costs for maintaining the ocean-type bridges and other bridges. The anti-toll supporters have suggested raising revenues uniformly from the entire state using vehicle taxes or fees instead of tolls to fund statewide maintenance and replacements.
    By mixing statewide bridge replacements and maintenance costs in the proposed study, politicians for the anti-toll group have succeeded at masking or muddying the underlying issue, which is about maintenance of ocean-type bridges. This would in effect create a situation where the bulk of the state population would be subsidizing much of the maintenance on the state’s bay bridges by paying most of the costs instead of the actual users of those structures paying for them. It’s easy to gas up in Massachusetts where the price of gas is cheaper, so out of state residents and commercial entities would contribute little or nothing to the maintenance and repair of the bridges that they use in Rhode Island.
    So back to fairness, is it fair to ask the entire state to subsidize maintenance costs for the bay bridges? Should state residents also replace the income that’s generated from the Newport Bridge by abolishing the tolls? Is it fair to continue the current finance structure where the bulk of those costs are mostly subsidized by residents of the southern end of Aquidneck Island and South County, or should the toll burden be more fairly distributed to include the northern end of Aquidneck Island, and the rest Newport and Bristol Counties by way of tolls on the Sakonnet River Bridge?
    It’s a sad irony that for decades it’s been impossible to develop a sustainable funding source for RIPTA, which is more heavily used by urban residents or by people who are less advantaged, but to propose a user fee for maintenance of bridges goes against a 1950s promise or fantasy that all roads are free, which has resulted in creating an enormous uproar and backlash among politically savvy and highly vocal middleclass East Bay suburban residents.

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  12. cailin rua

    I think I know what bothers me most is the assertion that user fees for this bridge would be good because it would change driving behavior,  like a sin tax, like encouraging people to quit smoking by taxing them more.   

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  13. transportprovidence

    Ah, so did you read my article (the one you quoted from)?
    This is what I was saying.  People are bothered no matter how you talk about it.
    Strictly speaking, this is not a tax on people’s behavior.  This is a fee for costs they themselves cause.  A tax on smoking is a tax to try to change people’s behavior alone, not accounting for whether the behavior affects anyone else for real and is really something that should be in the public domain.  This definitely is in the public domain.  You either use the bridge and damage it, or you don’t use it, and don’t.  You’re paying for your use.
    If you talk about it as a “tax”, conservatives and libertarians get annoyed, because they see it as the nanny-state.  If you talk about it as being a market-based solution, liberals get annoyed, because they jump to the conclusion that it’s going to lead to everything being a user-based fee, and liberals don’t like that when it comes to things like healthcare.  It’s an odd combination of different emotional responses canceling out what could be a bipartisan movement for change.

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  14. cailin rua

    Some say this world is a product of the Demiurge but what do I know?  I have read some of what you have written, assuming you are James, not Rachel.  It took a little detective work.  I don’t know how you feel about this but I consider it food for thought:


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  15. transportprovidence

    Eh, I’m not into the green anarchist thing. I think we need roads and civilization, I just think we ought to be wise about how we go about it.
    Thanks for the debate.

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  16. transportprovidence

    I thought I’d said everything I could have said about this, but just by serendipity, Greater Marin blog in California just posted something about a similar debate on tolls in California.  It really delves into the question of regressive/progressive taxation, and how that interacts with bridges, cars, and transit.
    (See: http://thegreatermarin.wordpress.com/2013/07/09/a-fare-hike-a-toll-freeze/)
    We should try to learn from California’s mistakes.

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  17. cailin rua

    looks like i said enough already. i am prevented from commenting on the thread this link has come from; how democratic! I’m done except for this. It’s about much more than tolls. Raimondo is talking about P3’s. And this, I believe, is just the beginning. The co-opted environmental tack is all about neo-liberal public(actually privatized) policy. It is so sad but here’s where we’re headed:


    I’ve spent my one link on this piece but one should pay attention to what is happening in El Salvador; so sad. We’re living in a post 38 Studios era where baseball has been veddy, veddy gooood to so few, a world where the risks will be socialized and the profits, of course, will be privatized.

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  18. leftyrite

    “Traditionally, infrastructure is funded through bonds, but for reasons that remain unclear to me, we have decided not to fully fund maintenance when we do our infrastructure bonds.”

    Sam, you’re a policy whiz, and I have the distinct impression that you spend lots and lots of time on Rhode Island politics.

    So, if the reasons for the funky infrastructural funding and the maintenance nonfunding are not clear to you, that alone might tell the rest of us something–provided that we want to hear it.

    Every other day, we read about Paiva-Weed and Mattiello. Every dollar in the state economy is crucial, but CVS gets eighteen million in tax breaks (ie., money).

    We must hold the line. And let’s tighten up our security.

    Every dollar must mean something. An iconic Industrial Trust Building? Zero.

    Public service–bad. Enron, on the other hand? Jury’s out. Let’s wait and see.

    Politics is collapsing and power is seeping in everywhere.

    We’ll build bridges. “We” just won’t fund them properly, pauperizing ourselves down the line.

    As Bob Simon found out, sometimes the taxi really isn’t under control.

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  19. cailin rua

    ““We need to take a comprehensive look at solutions, everything from public-private partnerships to tolling,” Raimondo said.

    The following did not come out of the Bezos owned WaPo. Not only are Obama neo-libs in favor of tolling, they seem most enthusiastic about the idea of those tolls going to private companies, most of them foreign. How soon will it be before names such as Macquarie and Veolia become household words after we’re required to pay their monthly bills?

    From CounterPunch:

    “The Public-Private Partnership legislation is merely an outgrowth of the Obama Administration’s so-called “Partnership for Growth” bilateral agreement, signed with the Funes government in 2011. This agreement “embodies a key administration policy of seeking to . . . . . . . Despite the innocuous diplomatic rhetoric, the bilateral agreement intends to create a climate conducive to foreign exploitation of the resources and services of a country that is, in many ways, entirely dependent upon the United States for its economic survival. It should be noted here that, on more than one occasion, the Obama administration ambassador to El Salvador, Mari Carmen Aponte, has threatened to withhold crucial aid if the Public-Private law is not enacted.”


    Sorry, I said I was done. Guess not. Note that Greece is being required by its financiers to sell off its public assets. Those who disregard that Manhattan Institute video will condemn all of us to live it. Think Rudy Giuliani. The Manhattan Institute is closely associated with the policies promoted by Giuliani. This is what “progressivism” is?

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