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October 5, 2017 2:00 PM, EDT
Rhode Island Pulls Back Funding For Truck-Related Programs

Due to delays in the state Legislature and an unexpected dearth of resources, Rhode Island’s government has made changes to funding for programs pertinent to the trucking industry.

Rhode Island’s 2016 General Assembly included legislation in its fiscal 2017 budget to reduce commercial vehicle registration fees during fiscal 2018, which runs from July 1, 2017 to June 30, 2018. However, the Rhode Island Trucking Association released a notice Sept. 19 stating that, as of Sept. 24, the reduced fee provision would be suspended.

Legislature spokesman Larry Berman said the reversal was “part of the action” of the 2017 Assembly’s planning for the fiscal 2018 budget. Berman said the 2017 Assembly met in June to create the fiscal 2018 budget, but deliberations were stalled due to a stalemate between the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Raimondo

The impasse was the result of a disagreement regarding the state’s car tax, which levies taxes on vehicle owners and varies based on municipality. The stalemate, which lasted more than a month, was resolved when legislative leaders agreed to consider the matter separately at a later date. Gov. Gina Raimondo signed the final budget Aug. 4, according to Berman.

Because the budget was approved in early August and the fiscal year ended June 30, Rhode Island operated for about a month without a new budget. The reduced registration fees were in effect during this time. It was only when the fiscal 2018 budget was finalized that the reduced-fee plan was overturned, meaning a provision that originally was meant to extend for a year lasted about a month.

“Were it not for an unusual delay in budget enactment, the fees would simply have been held constant” and never been reduced, Berman said.

The Assembly also reduced the Rhode Island Clean Diesel Fund by half its nearly $2 million funding allotment. The program, which runs through the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, is used to reduce emissions from heavy-duty diesel engines operating on state roads and help companies improve supply chain efficiency, Berman said.

Maxwell

RITA President Chris Maxwell said the program offers “full upgrades to older trucks.” According to RIDEM, trucks and buses can receive replacement engines that improve the vehicle’s emissions and are “cleaner than the original engine.” The program also extends to locomotives and marine engines.

Maxwell said available truck upgrades also include modifications to wind deflectors, refrigeration systems, tires and, in some cases, full vehicle replacements. Some 40 RITA members are negotiating with RIDEM to receive these grants.

According to RIDEM, the clean diesel program was appropriated $1.9 million for fiscal 2017. However, this amount was reduced by nearly half in the fiscal 2018 budget plan because RIDEM had only begun the process of promulgating rules and regulations and had not planned any expenses, according to Berman. He added that although Raimondo recommended the program receive $2 million for fiscal 2018, the Assembly reduced that amount to $1 million as it refined the budget, facing an “unexpected shortfall in resources.”

“This is $1 million less than enacted,” Berman said. “It was a case of the projected revenues falling short of estimates, which meant there was less money to spend in the budget than was originally anticipated.”

Maxwell attributed the reduced funds to political retribution for the trucking industry’s opposition to the state’s RhodeWorks infrastructure program. Raimondo introduced RhodeWorks in 2016 as a way to rebuild the state’s roads and bridges. According to RIDOT, Rhode Island ranks last in the nation in overall bridge condition, as about 22% of the state’s 1,162 bridges are structurally deficient.

RhodeWorks includes a truck-only tolling system projected to generate $4.7 billion to finance infrastructure projects such as bridge replacements and road improvements, which has sparked RITA’s ire. The tolling gantries are slated to be activated in December.

In August, RIDOT submitted a request to the State Traffic Commission to restrict tractor-trailers from using secondary roads, which was defeated by a 3-2 vote.

Maxwell said RITA has exposed the “lack of due diligence and incompetence on all matters related to RhodeWorks.” For example, when the state offered the reduced registration fees to Rhode Island commercial vehicles, Maxwell said his association learned that trucks running through the state under apportionment could receive the same rebates as Rhode Island-based trucks.

He further claimed that the reduced fee plan started as a gesture to the state’s business community but was “disingenuously pulled back” as an act of retaliation.

“We feel it’s retribution for ongoing exposure of RhodeWorks failures,” Maxwell said. “They don’t like to be challenged, and they certainly don’t like to be embarrassed.”