Commentary: Sakonnet Bridge Toll – We All Sleep in the Beds we Make

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December 6, 2012

We all sleep in the beds we make. Legislators and citizens alike.

After decades of negligence by the Political Class in mismanaging one of the appropriate roles of government – infrastructure development – Rhode Island ranks last or next to last in multiple major national highway, bridge and general infrastructure indexes.

And now, with tolls planned for the Sakonnet River Bride, the state faces a lose-lose situation; where local residents will face a punishing new ‘tax’ and where the local and state economy will continue to be harmed as a result. Are tolls the only course we should have considered? Will anyone even end up being held accountable for this debacle?

Our elected officials, including those few who are now speaking out against the toll, have systematically ignored our state’s bridges and highways and have continually prioritized spending in other areas where a more tangible political quid-pro-quo can be realized. This total failure of government has brought us to the point where the knee-jerk reaction to impose new taxes and fees on our people was sadly predictable.

But the blame does not reside solely on Smith Hill. Where were those people last spring when the budget and this toll were being contemplated? Where was the East Bay citizenry then that should have been pressuring their own locally elected officials to run around the state capitol to try to kill this toll? It may be too little, too late now.

These citizenship and legislative failures are yet more examples of what can happen when the great responsibility our Constitution places on citizens to remain vigilant and to control the workings of our government is abandoned, leaving a void for special interest groups to eagerly slop up any taxpayer dollars left in the trough.

When will we ever learn?

Back to the matter at hand, according to the Federal Highway Administration, more state and local governments are relying on tolls to build and repair roads, bridges and tunnels as traditional local revenue sources and one-time stimulus funds dry up. But is this the only practical approach? No.

There are alternative solutions we might have considered to fund these much needed upgrades. In order of preference, they are (were):

A) Re-allocation of existing funds: without raising taxes, fees, or tolls – this approach would force officials to make difficult funding priority decisions, and decrease tax and fee burdens on the Rhode Island economy. But who in the Political Class is brave enough to do this?

B) Cut taxes elsewhere, even as we implement the new tolls: this would lessen the negative economic impact on Rhode Island drivers who are tolled as well as on our overall economy. This we can still do.

C) Privatize the upgrades and maintenance: many states are contracting with private entities to maintain infrastructure, collect the tolls, and take the financial and legal risk. The private sector can manage projects such as these at a lower cost and can also provide maintenance and toll-collection services more efficiently. Privatization would also ensure that the tolls are never mingled with the state’s General Funds and re-allocated for whatever new emergency may arise. Further, a private entity can be sued if they fail to meet the terms of their contract in maintaining a bridge or highway. Under a government run system, who can be or will be held accountable? This is where we could have been.

D) Government-run upgrades and maintenance funded by tolls: the big government default mode, which would likely result in higher tolls than the privatization route. This is where we are.

E) Raise general taxes: this approach would affect a broader range of Rhode Island residents, and would have the largest impact on the state’s already fragile economy. Only the most radical socialists would think that this is feasible in Rhode Island at this time.

For failing in their duty to the people by not considering some of these other options, some legislators should lose their jobs.

For failing to remain vigilant in exercising their right of citizenship, it looks like many Rhode Islanders will now pay a dear price.

Mike Stenhouse is CEO for the Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity, a non-partisan public policy think tank and the state’s leading free-enterprise advocacy organization. With a credo that freedom is indispensable to citizens’ well-being and prosperity, the Center’s mission is to stimulate a rigorous exchange of ideas with the goal of restoring competitiveness to Rhode Island through the advancement of market-based reform solutions.

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