PROVIDENCE, R.I. — A toll-financed Rhode Island bridge repair program moved closer to reality Jan. 5 as Gov. Gina Raimondo relented to General Assembly leaders' demands to disclose the locations for proposed toll gantries, releasing them minutes after the House and Senate convened their first sessions of 2016.
The plan includes 14 preliminary locations where large commercial trucks would be tolled to fund bridge repairs, down from 17 unidentified locations the Rhode Island Department of Transportation had proposed in June, when the Senate passed tolling legislation but House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello called for more information before voting.
With the release of the gantry locations, Mattiello told reporters Jan. 5 that a reworked version of Raimondo's tolling proposal will emerge from House and Senate negotiations with the governor's team "within a week or two."
"I want it out yesterday," he quipped. "It's not ready ... It's a numbers game right now, getting it as lean as we possibly can, while still being able to do the scope of work."
"Give us at least two weeks," he said.
Raimondo had initially wanted to release the locations only after tolling legislation was passed, but she faced pressure to divulge the locations, first from tolling opponents and then from Mattiello.
Although providing the toll locations had not been a condition of her support for truck tolls this summer, Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed said Jan. 5 that telling Rhode Islanders where the tolls would be located was "critical to moving the legislation forward."
"I'm hopeful that the speaker will make this a priority in the upcoming month, and the providing of this information is critical to ensuring that it is a priority in this General Assembly," Paiva Weed said after the Senate session.
The proposed gantry locations were released despite the tolling bill's final parameters still being in flux and major pieces of the bridge repair plan under negotiation, including its overall size, whether it will include borrowing and the form of incentives to compensate local trucking companies.
In a letter to Mattiello and Paiva Weed revealing where her team wants the gantries to go, Raimondo cautioned that the final locations are subject to change based on the final details of the legislation, the wishes of the Federal Highway Administration and public comment. She also said the state police had promised to "take action" to prevent the trucks from avoiding the tolls.
Reached by phone Jan. 5, Department of Transportation Director Peter Alviti Jr. said the 14 toll sites had been determined based on factors such as which locations would collect the most money and how close they are to the bridges that need to be repaired. Federal law requires the tolls to fund repairs to bridges in the proximity of where they are collected, until those repairs are finished.
Asked what allowed the DOT to cut the number of toll gantries from 17 to 14, Alviti said the passage of a federal transportation bill that will provide Rhode Island an average of $20 million in additional highway dollars annually.
While the number and location of proposed tolls may be set, Raimondo did not release the rate trucks would have to pay, and that number still may be changing.
In the version of Raimondo's bridge repair plan released in June, the median toll was $3.50 with a $30 maximum to cross the state. That plan projected annual toll revenue of $60 million annually.
But Mattiello was uncomfortable with the size of the plan, known as RhodeWorks, and the amount of borrowing involved.
The June version of RhodeWorks called for a $600 million bond, of which $500 million would go to construction, $43 million to building toll gantries, $39 million in debt service reserves and $10 million in financing charges. Over the 30-year term of the bond, the DOT estimated the state would pay $563 million in interest, bringing the total cost to $1.1 billion.
On Jan. 5, Mattiello said the additional federal highway money has helped reduce RhodeWorks borrowing, but he is still looking to get "the numbers as lean and efficient as we can possibly get them."
He told reporters he hopes to eliminate the need for a bond, possibly by "borrowing against federal resources."
Asked whether the governor still saw the need for a bond to provide the "surge" in up-front repair dollars central to RhodeWorks, Alviti and Raimondo spokeswoman Joy Fox declined to say.
Despite the release of the long-sought gantry locations, toll opponents remain skeptical about the wisdom of RhodeWorks and whether the DOT is competent to execute it.
"It should not have taken six months for this information to be released and it begs many more questions, including the toll amounts at each gantry and whether or not these initial locations are situated on the most structurally deficient bridges," said Chris Maxwell, president of the Rhode Island Trucking Association, in an e-mail statement.
"Additionally, we have always questioned the capabilities of the Rhode Island Department of Transportation to repair 453 bridges in a five-year period," Maxwell added. "Have any of these locations even received approvals to begin construction, including environmental impact analysis? We will continue to raise these salient questions this legislative session."
Despite its consistent opposition to any Rhode Island tolling proposal, the Trucking Association did not participate in an anti-RhodeWorks rally in the State House by StopTollsRI.com just before the General Assembly session.
Beneath a 25-foot banner hanging from the rotunda wall and bearing the words "Trucks First Then Cars," roughly 100 toll opponents argued that RhodeWorks was a giveaway to Wall Street and the first move toward what would ultimately be tolls on passenger cars. "Stop Tolls Now," they chanted after every speaker.
"This is another way to extract money from our citizens and it will have terrible effects on our economy," said Rep. Patricia Morgan, R-West Warwick, who has led opposition to the toll plan within the General Assembly.
Gary Sasse, founding director of Bryant University's Hassenfeld Institute for Public Leadership, pointed out that the earliest RhodeWorks plan had included smaller Class 6 trucks — it was changed to larger Class 8 — as a sign that tolls could one day be expanded to cover debt service.
Most of the criticism at the rally was focused on Raimondo for coming up with the idea of tolling large trucks and the amount of debt in her proposal.
Monique Chartier, communications director of Rhode Island Taxpayers, even credited Mattiello, despite his support for the tolling concept, for slowing the process down and demanding Raimondo release the gantry locations.
However, Morgan after the rally made it clear that the group would not support tolls under any circumstances, even if borrowing is not involved.
"That's an improvement," Morgan said about a smaller tolling plan. "But does anyone believe it will stay small? [The revenue] will be too enticing."