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The governor and top Democratic lawmakers are looking to the tolling plan to help fund the repair of deficient bridges.
Truckers crossing Rhode Island on Interstate 95 would pay up to a $20 toll under a revised version of controversial road funding legislation, which Gov. Gina M. Raimondo and General Assembly leaders in the Ocean State unveiled Thursday.
The updated legislation takes into account new federal funding that would total $258 million over 10 years and cuts the amount of bonds the state would issue to $300 million from about $600 million, according to a joint announcement from the governor, House Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello, and Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed.
The bill would pave the way for Raimondo’s so-called RhodeWorks program, which is aimed at repairing Rhode Island’s ailing highway bridges. About 22 percent of the 1,162 roadway bridges in Rhode Island are structurally deficient, according to the state’s Department of Transportation.
Raimondo, a Democrat, first unveiled RhodeWorks last year.
“Rhode Island has the worst bridges in the country,” she said in a statement Thursday.
"Because of new federal funding, we were able to strengthen the proposal: we've lowered the maximum truck toll amount, decreased the number of gantries, and significantly reduced the state's interest payments,” the governor added.
Under the earlier RhodeWorks plan, the proposed cap for a cross-state truck toll on Interstate 95 had been $30. As proposed in the new bill, it would be $20. Under both the new and old plans, the toll could only be imposed on a truck once, in each direction, each day. Gantries, which are structures built over a roadway that can hold tolling cameras and other equipment, had initially been planned for 17 locations. Officials are now saying that number would be 14.
A fact sheet released on Thursday said that interest costs under the new bill would be $204 million over 15 years million, down from $578 million over 30 years in the previous plan.
On Thursday afternoon, the legislation was introduced in the House by Majority Leader John DeSimone and in the Senate by Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio. It was referred to the finance committees in both chambers.
Democrats have comfortable majorities in both the House and Senate in Rhode Island’s General Assembly.
Truck tolling opponents in the state were unswayed by the new proposal.
“It’s just as bad,” Monique Chartier, a spokesperson for a coalition of advocacy groups called Stop Tolls RI, said by phone Thursday.
A contingent of Republican lawmakers, along with Stop Tolls RI, has opposed both the tolls and the issuance of bonds. They have advocated instead for a “pay-as-you-go” approach for road and bridge upgrades, arguing that it could be covered using existing budget dollars.
“I will vote against it,” Rep. Patricia Morgan, a Republican who represents a district that covers West Warwick and a leading opponent of RhodeWorks, said during a brief interview Thursday.
Morgan believes that she and her fellow Republicans have identified places in the state’s budget where the necessary cash for fixing the state’s bridges can come from. And this money, she has said, would not be siphoned off from social services or other vital programs.
Mattiello, the House speaker, had previously made clear his preference for borrowing less money to pay for highway upkeep than what the governor had initially proposed. He told Route Fifty earlier this month that he was working on a plan that involved more federal funding and less bond financing. On Thursday he called the newly introduced legislation “vastly improved.”
He also dismissed claims, which Morgan and other critics have lobbed at RhodeWorks, that truck tolling would open the door for eventually tolling passenger cars in Rhode Island.
Mattiello highlighted that the revised bill would require voter approval for cars to be tolled.
"Despite the scare tactics of opponents of this proposal who only want to hold our economy back, the toll plan only includes large commercial trucks,” he said in a statement.
But Morgan remained unconvinced.
“Any prohibition of tolls written into a bill can easily be written out of a bill down the road,” she said.
Later Morgan described the legislation as a “Trojan horse.”
Specifically, the legislation would affect large commercial trucks that are Class 8 or above. The U.S. Department of Transportation describes a Class 8 truck as heavy duty, having a gross vehicle weight of 33,001 or more and 10 or more tires.
The Rhode Island Trucking Association, an industry group, has also pushed back against truck tolling in the state.
Chris Maxwell, the association’s president, issued a statement that was posted on social media on Thursday.
“Although we continue to be fundamentally opposed to tolling, we recognize this bill is very different than what the governor had proposed last year,” he said.
But, Maxwell added, the group continues to believe that a diesel fuel tax increase and a truck registration fee hike would be “more efficient” than tolling when it comes to raising road funds.
A tentative plan for where tolling sites could be located, issued earlier this month, placed them in the Providence area along Interstates 95, 295 and 195, U.S. Route 6 and State Route 146. The Interstate 95 corridor is a major east coast trucking route. One other concern voiced about the tolling proposal is that truckers will try to avoid paying the tolls by using alternative routes.
Asked whether she thought it was hopeless to fight the truck tolling legislation given the support for it among the Democratic leadership in both chambers of the General Assembly, Morgan responded: “It’s an election year, and I think we’ve awakened the people of Rhode Island to the damage this will do to the state’s economy and to their own personal finances.”
But Raimondo framed the bill as urgent.
“We can no longer afford the politics of procrastination; we need to invest more,” she said, after noting the decaying condition of the state’s bridges. “This proposal will allow us to move quickly to repair our roads and bridges, and put Rhode Islanders back to work, without raising taxes on Rhode Island families and small businesses.”
Bill Lucia is a Reporter at Government Executive's Route Fifty.
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