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Despite widespread agreement among state lawmakers and others that the Ocean State’s bridges need fixing, there is deep discord over how to foot the bill.
A controversial proposal to toll large commercial trucks in order to raise money for road and bridge repairs is poised to be one of the hotter topics during Rhode Island’s 2016 General Assembly session, which kicked off in Providence on Tuesday.
Gov. Gina M. Raimondo, a Democrat, floated the tolling initiative last year. According to Rhode Island’s Department of Transportation, about 22 percent of the 1,162 roadway bridges in the state are structurally deficient. Raimondo’s plan, dubbed RhodeWorks, calls for issuing a $500 million revenue bond that would help cover the cost of fixing these structures, and then paying off that debt using money from the new tolls.
Additionally, the state would seek $400 million in federal matching funds to go toward road and bridge upkeep, and would look to access another $120 million of federal money by restructuring existing debt, according to a description of the RhodeWorks plan published online by the state's Department of Transportation.
Raimondo’s administration says it makes sense that heavy trucks should pay the tolls because the rigs cause more wear and tear on roadways than smaller vehicles.
But RhodeWorks has hit opposition on multiple fronts.
A group of Republican lawmakers, along with a coalition of advocacy groups unified under the banner of Stop Tolls RI, is slamming the idea of instituting the truck tolls and issuing the bonds. These critics are instead touting a “pay-as-you-go” approach for road and bridge upgrades, arguing that this plan could be covered using existing budget dollars.
Democratic House Speaker, Rep. Nicholas Mattiello, sees that idea as faulty. But, rather than endorsing Raimondo’s proposal outright, he favors tolling without issuing bonds, or with a smaller borrowing component than what the governor proposed last year.
Raimondo’s office continued to defend her version of the truck tolling initiative on Tuesday.
“By having more money up front to tackle our bridges, we can actually save taxpayers about $600 million—even with the cost of interest included,” Ashley Gingerella O’Shea, Raimondo’s deputy communications director, said in an email. The idea is that by paying to repair bridges sooner they will not fall as deeply into disrepair and will therefore be cheaper to fix.
“By accelerating the work—and fixing more bridges earlier—we save money in the long term,” Gingerella O’Shea added.
Rep. Patricia Morgan, a Republican who represents a district that covers West Warwick, is among those leading the fight against RhodeWorks. She believes that the truck tolls will hurt the state economy, and that the cost of them will ultimately trickle down to Rhode Island consumers.
Morgan acknowledges that the state’s bridges need repairs, but is an advocate of the pay-as-you-go proposal, which would rely on shifting around existing state funds.
“There is absolutely enough money in the budget, I’ve studied it, it’s there,” she said during a phone interview on Tuesday. “I cannot accept tolls at all,” she added. “Tolling has to be off the table.”
Asked whether she would prefer a fuel tax increase to tolling, Morgan replied: “I don’t think we need to raise the gas tax, I think the money is in the budget.”
Morgan said she and a contingent of lawmakers, known as the Republican Policy Group, scoured the state’s budget last year, looking for ways to pay for road and bridge maintenance.
In her view, it is possible to cover the necessary costs without issuing bonds, and by instead wringing money out of other spending categories. She said that the 13-member Republican Policy Group, which includes lawmakers from the Senate and the House, backs this approach to paying for the bridges, and that it would not involve cuts to social programs or vital services.
“We went after corporate welfare, wasteful spending, band-aids that are non-critical,” she said.
Mattiello, the House speaker, dismissed the funding tactics Morgan is promoting.
“Rep. Morgan has a flawed plan that doesn’t identify where most [of] the cuts would come from in the budget,” he said in an emailed statement on Tuesday.
Morgan emailed Route Fifty a spreadsheet that outlined broad categories of the budget where the Republican Policy Group believes the money can be found. Some of these included "renewable energy mandate savings," film tax credits, and departmental grants.
Mattiello’s preferred option for covering the road upkeep costs involves tolling trucks. But he explained: “Thanks to the larger infusion of federal highway money, I am working on a plan that would rely on the tolls and much less on bonding for the financing of the project.”
Another proposal that has surfaced is from The Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity. The nonprofit group is a member of the State Policy Network, “a national group of state-based think-tanks fighting to limit government and advance market-friendly public policy.”
The center is unsupportive of tolling, and has urged lawmakers to consider a pay-as-you-go approach, combined with a public-private partnership, to pay for road upgrades.
On Tuesday, the group issued a statement encouraging people to attend a rally at the Rhode Island State House to oppose the governor’s tolling plan.
Stop Tolls RI organized the event. And, according to local media reports, about 100 people showed up.
“We would certainly back the exploration of a public private partnership,” Monique Chartier, a spokesperson for Stop Tolls RI, said by phone on Tuesday, just before heading to the rally. She added: “We are just shuddering at the prospect of all the cost overruns.”
Although the proposed RhodeWorks bond issue is $500 million, repaying the debt would cost more. Total interest costs for the borrowed money were pegged at $563 million in a Rhode Island Department of Transportation document from last June.
After factoring in other expenses, estimated project costs totaled about $1.1 billion.
According to the Department of Transportation document, the expected date for the bond issuance would be July 1, 2016, and the debt would have a term of 30 years.
Tolls themselves would be capped at a maximum of $60 per day for trucks, the document also said.
Raimondo’s administration has caught flack from critics—including Morgan—who claim the governor’s office has not been forthcoming with information about where the tolling would take place. But, on Tuesday, Peter Alviti, Jr., director of the state Department of Transportation, sent a letter to Mattiello and state Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed, a Democrat, which outlined preliminary locations that are being considered for 14 tolling “gantries.” Alviti stressed in the letter that the locations could change going forward.
Six of the tolling locations were along Interstate 95, a primary East Coast trucking route. Another four were on Interstates 295 and 195, and the others were on U.S. Route 6 and State Route 146, all in the Providence area.
Larry Duhamel has been in the trucking business for about 40 years and now works with his son, who owns N&D Transportation. Located in North Smithfield, Rhode Island, near the Connecticut border, the company has about 30 rigs, which haul van freight.
“I think the toll is not the right way to go about it,” Duhamel said by phone on Tuesday. The way he sees it, if Rhode Island needs the money, a fuel tax makes more sense, because it won’t require new tolling infrastructure, and truckers wouldn’t be hassled by paying tolls.
“It won’t cost them a penny more to collect that,” Duhamel said of the fuel tax.
Last fall, the Rhode Island Trucking Association, an industry group opposed to truck tolling, issued its own proposal for paying the cost of road and bridge upkeep in the state. It involved raising diesel fuel taxes from 34 cents to 52 cents, and also upping truck registration fees by $500 per year. Other parts of the plan included rescinding tax credits, and refinancing bonds.
As he discussed the possibility of truck tolling in the state, Duhamel said that N&D was located only about 10 miles from Rhode Island’s northern border. He estimated there were typically about 10 trucks on the road each night that the company could easily send through Connecticut instead of Rhode Island.
“But we’d be taking back roads to Connecticut,” he said. “Trucking companies are probably going to do that to avoid the tolls.”
Chartier, the Stop Tolls RI spokesperson, noted that when it comes to the tolling debate, there is broad agreement on all sides that Rhode Island’s ailing bridges need to be repaired.
“The question,” she said, “is how do we pay for it?”
Bill Lucia is a Reporter for Government Executive’s Route Fifty.
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