How Much Will it Cost to Cross the Sakonnet River Bridge?

Apr 17, 2013

The Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority has unanimously voted on tolls for the new Sakonnet River Bridge. The Authority also adjusted tolls for the Newport Pell Bridge allowing drivers with a Rhode Island E-ZPass a discounted rate and the ability to cross the bridge multiple times a day and only be charged for one trip.

Officials are set to decide toll rates on the new Sakonnet River Bridge.
Credit Rhode Island Department of Transportation

The green metal bridge that used to take traffic over the Sakonnet River sits waiting to be sold for scrap, right next to it, a constant stream of cars and trucks travel across the new concrete bridge. Turnpike Authority chairman David Darlington parks his car nearby, and gazes at the bridges out of his front windshield. But he’s thinking about another bridge: the 84-year-old Mount Hope Bridge, that’s still in use today.

“The truth is, Catherine, that the old Sakonnet River Bridge could have lasted into perpetuity had it been properly maintained through its life as well,” said Darlington.

Darlington starts his car and worms his way onto the new bridge. We’re heading over the bridge toward Portsmouth and drive right past the spot where a metal structure, called a gantry, will straddle the bridge to take tolls.

“Just to give you an idea, here is where the gantry will be, right before the Exit 4 sign,” said Darlington.” And that will span the roadway at that point.”

This gantry is it. There will be no toll booths, no toll collectors, just a lot of high tech equipment that will either read your E-ZPass or take a picture of your license plate so the Turnpike Authority can send you a bill.

“It will be an arbor just like you’re driving under signs today. You don’t slow down, there’s no attendant there to great you,” said Darlington. “It will just be an open 18 foot tall gantry that will go across the street with cameras and equipment on it.”

Darlington said Rhode Islanders make up a little more than 60 percent of those who drive across the Sakonnet Bridge. The Turnpike and Bridge Authority has been working the numbers to figure out how to charge Rhode Island drivers the least amount of money without piling the cost on to out-of-state drivers.  What they’ve come up with is $.75 for Rhode Islanders with an E-ZPass, $3.75 for out-of-state drivers and Rhode Islanders without an E-ZPass, plus an extra $1.50 surcharge for anyone who doesn’t have an E-ZPass and ends up getting a bill in the mail.

Kristen Costa lives in Somerset, MA and works in Newport. It takes her about 45 minutes to get to her job at the Newport Restoration Foundation. Her commute takes her across the Sakonnet Bridge twice a day. The Turnpike and Bridge Authority wants to help out-of-state commuters like Costa by selling them a Rhode Island E-ZPass that charges the $.75 rate and covers unlimited trips made in one day.

“Yeah, I’d be a big fan out that,” said Costa. “It would still hurt the bottom line of my budget but a lot less if it were $4.00 for me twice every day.”

Bridge maintenance has by and large been paid for through the gas tax, but that revenue sources is shrinking. So tolls on the Sakonett and Newport’s Pell Bridge will pay for their upkeep as well as the maintenance of the Jamestown and Mt. Hope bridges. That upkeep is going to cost $40 million. Turnpike and Bridge Authority Chairman David Darlington said it makes sense to raise the money on the Sakonett and Pell bridges, since they are the most traveled. But state Representative John Edwards of Tiverton thinks that’s bunk.

“It’s pretty simple, they’re looking at the Sakonnet River Bridge as a cash cow, and they have consistently done that,” said Edwards.

Edwards has been doing some math on his own, and he says the toll to pay for maintenance shouldn’t be any more than a dime. But tolls aren’t the answer, he said, because they aren’t fair to the people who live near a toll bridge.

“A lot of people use them and they should be taken care of by everyone in the state. The Pawtucket River Bridge gets taken care of by everyone in the state, the I-Way gets taken care of by everyone in the state,” said Edwards. “There are something like some 800 bridges in the state, all but two will be taken care of by the rest of the state.”

Edwards is pushing a slate of bills at the Statehouse that gets rid of tolls, including one that removes tolls and tacks an extra fee on to a driver’s license and registration as a way to pay for maintaining the four bridges. As the legislative process churns on Smith Hill, the Turnpike and Bridge Authority is preparing to start collecting tolls on the Sakonnet Bridge in July.

Editor's note: The $.75 rate will be charged for drivers with a Rhode Island E-ZPass. Rhode Islanders without an E-ZPass will be charged $5.25.

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