PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — A week after voting to delay tolls on the Sakonnet River Bridge, Rhode Island lawmakers did an abrupt about-face late Tuesday night and voted to impose a 10-cent toll beginning in August.
No public comment was taken before the House voted 40-25 to establish the toll on the bridge connecting Tiverton and Portsmouth. The Senate followed suit just before midnight, endorsing the toll 29-8. The toll bill delayed the General Assembly’s plan to adjourn Tuesday, forcing them to return Wednesday to wrap up their work for the year.
Last week, lawmakers voted to delay tolls on the new bridge until February to study alternatives after residents and businesses complained a toll would be a burden. The toll delay was inserted in an $8.2 billion state budget bill.
Before the vote, state transportation officials had warned that delaying tolls could prevent them from ever being imposed because federal rules prohibit new tolls on bridges once they’re deemed to be complete. Though it’s now open, the bridge won’t be declared finished until at least August.
The state had planned to impose the toll — starting at 75 cents for in-state motorists with an E-ZPass transponder — beginning next month. The revenue would support bridge repair and maintenance. Lawmakers authorized the toll last year.
While legislative leaders said they had determined the modest toll was necessary to preserve the power to have tolls in the future, many rank-and-file lawmakers complained that they had been misled when they voted to delay the toll.
‘‘Fifty-two of you voted not to toll that bridge,’’ said Rep. Scott Guthrie, D-Coventry, referring to last week’s vote to delay the tolls. ‘‘We’re going back on our word.’’
But House Majority Leader Nicholas Mattiello, D-Cranston and the sponsor of the bill, said eliminating the option of future tolls would jeopardize the long-term finances of the state’s transportation system.
‘‘You’re passing the bill on to your kids because we don’t have the will today to do the responsible thing,’’ he told lawmakers opposed to the toll.
The debate was unusually bitter, with Rep. Patrick O'Neill, D-Pawtucket, telling Speaker Gordon Fox ‘‘you don’t have the guts’’ after Fox threatened to rule O'Neill out of order for straying from the topic of the bill during floor debate.
Later, Fox, D-Providence, told Rep. Karen MacBeth, D-Cumberland, that she too was out of order for her remarks criticizing the legislative process behind the bill. He told her to sit down and ‘‘eat your cake,’’ a reference to slices of cake handed out to lawmakers.
‘‘You eat the cake!’’ she fired back.
During the more cordial Senate debate, Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed told her colleagues that while it was a difficult vote, the tolls were needed to generate money for bridge upkeep. She promised that lawmakers would look for stable, fair ways to support long-term road and bridge maintenance.
‘‘Everybody acted in good faith on this,’’ the Newport Democrat said.
The bill now moves to Gov. Lincoln Chafee, who is expected to sign it into law.
Angry East Bay residents protested the toll increase at the Statehouse, accusing lawmakers of playing bait-and-switch and criticizing them for rushing the bill through late at night without taking public input.
‘‘This process is a sham,’’ said Middletown resident Antone Viveiros.