PORTSMOUTH, R.I. (WPRI) -- The budget approved by House lawmakers on Wednesday night includes an amendment that would bar the state from collecting tolls on the Sakonnet River Bridge until next February at the earliest.
The sudden change of plans could have some costly implications for the R.I. Turnpike and Bridge Authority (RITBA), according to David Darlington, chairman of the quasi-public agency.
The Sakonnet River Bridge tolls were set to open on July 10 and charge vehicles up to $5.25 each way. But Rhode Island lawmakers voted overwhelmingly this week to stop RITBA from opening the tolls, which was a major victory for Newport County residents after months of protests.
- Nesi: RI House votes to stop Sakonnet tolls until February
- The Vote: How did your lawmaker vote on tolls?
- In-Depth: Sakonnet Bridge Toll Debate
Darlington said eliminating the tolls is not that simple.
"Certainly some legislators, particularly in the East Bay area, would like to see that there would never be tolls on the bridge," he said. "I understand the legislature has a very broad set of things they have to look at. We've endeavored over the last 35, 40 hours to try to make sure that they understand what the impacts of this are."
Darlington told WPRI.com that lawmakers voted last year to allow tolls on the Sakonnet as a way to fund bridge maintenance, and said his agency has already spent $3.5 million on the tolls' structure, equipment and computer software. The Bridge Authority was expecting to bring in $8 million in revenue from the tolls.
"We'll have to see what we can use out of that investment and what could be lost,' he said.
Another concern for the agency is mounting debt, because RITBA borrowed money last year to pay for the new tollbooths, and failing to collect the tolls could violate the terms of its loan.
Darlington said that could lead to a lawsuit against the Turnpike Authority or the state, and the agency may have to borrow more money to pay back the tollbooth loan.
"More likely, we'll work something out in between the severe things and nothing at all - but they're impacts and we have to deal with them," he said.
The delay is not yet final as Governor Chafee would have to sign the amendment into law as part of the state budget.
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