Our new bridge

President Ronald Reagan Wants to cut unnecessary spending out of the federal budget. One place he might start would be at "our new bridge." "Our new bridge" is apparently something we are going to have. I live on an island. We used to get back and forth to the mainland by ferryboats. But in 1940 they built a bridge from our island (Connanicut, in the middle of the mouth of Narragansett Bay) over to the western mainland at Saunderstown.

They made it 22-feet wide, enough for two lanes of traffic and a footway on either side.It has served us well ever since. It carries an estimated annual average daily traffic of 11,500 vehicles. This is more than enough except in the summer when the holiday rush can sometimes cause a backup, or when an accident can block it. I have been held up for as much as an hour, which is the equivalent of waiting for the second ferryboat.

More or less everyone involved agrees that we need, or "are going to have," a new bridge. They say that at 40 years of age a bridge gets to need a lot of repairs and modernization. They say that to modernize this old bridge would cost as much as to build a new and better one.

Well, all right. I loved the isolation which the old ferryboats gave us on our island. But if that kind of conservatism were put up to the voters I am sure we would be outvoted by 50 to one. Our town voted for Mr. Reagan in the last election but most of my neighbors equate modernism with bridges. So, a new bridge there must be. But how big and how expensive must it be?

We have a measuring stick on the other side of our island. The city of Newport and the state of Rhode Island got together and built a bridge from our eastern side to the Newport shore. It was opened in 1969. They sold off the ferryboats, and we all looked with admiration and pride at that lovely new bridge. Aesthetically, it ism lovely. It is probably one of the most beautiful bridges in North America. Its great towers have the upward sweep of the arches of a fine gothic cathedral. And one of the pleasures of driving over it is that you seldom meet or even see other vehicles.

The new Newport bridge has a "free flowing" traffic capacity of 30,000 vehicles per day over its four lanes. It is currently carrying an average of 9, 000 vehicles per day. Rhode Island officials claim that the $2 per axle toll charged for using it has generated enough income to put its current operations in the black, for the first time in 1980. They hope to be able in 1981 to shoulder part of the annual mortgage and interest payments due the bondholders. Until now the state has had to meet those amortization payments out of state funds.

This new Newport bridge, which has to be subsidized, is 54- feet wide. The original proposals for the new bridge on the other side of our island called for six lanes (four for traffic, two for breakdown) and would be 88-feet wide. The reason given for building it so generously wide with triple the capacity which our present traffic flow justifies is the argument that if it meets federal highway safety standards Uncle Sam will pick up 80 percent of the cost.

No one knows how much "our new bridge" would cost if built according to the original proposals. The 54-foot Newport bridge cost $61 million in 1969. An 88 -foot Jamestown bridge over the next five years would presumably cost a great deal more, perhaps twice as much, or more, depending on whether President Reagan can actually check the inflation.

So long as the federal government in Washington dangles that tempting "80 percent of the cost" carrot in front of the state house in Providence it is a reasonable probability that the political elders of Rhode Island will build a bridge which most of us who live on our island will build a bridge which most of us who live on our island in the middle of the bay do not think we need and certainly do not want.

But if Uncle Sam withdrew that carrot and told us: if you want a bridge, go ahead on your own -- we would find it possible to manage with something better than our present old 22- foot bridge, but not as grand as the 54-foot Newport bridge, and certainly not a glorious 88-foot structure trying to rival the George Washington Bridge over the Hudson.

The availability of federal money generates many a fine structure, and will generate more, so long as it is there. But a lot of Americans would find that they could live comfortably and happily in less elegant surroundings, if we had to pay for our amenities out of our own local pockets. "Local self-reliance" would be a good slogan for a President who wants to cut the federal budget. It would make quite a difference in the scale and splendor of "our new bridg e."

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