Feud Over Toll Plan Rages

R.I. Gov. Says Truckers Want a ‘Free Ride’
Ian Donnis/Rhode Island Public Radio
This story appears in the Feb. 8 print edition of Transport Topics.

The war of words between Rhode Island officials and the state’s trucking association over Gov. Gina Raimondo’s truck-only tolling infrastructure plan just keeps boiling.

Prior to testifying last week about the governor’s updated “RhodeWorks” plan before the state’s Senate Committee on Finance on Feb. 3 and its House equivalent on Feb. 4, Rhode Island Trucking Association CEO Chris Maxwell told Transport Topics that Raimondo “hasn’t said an educated word about this issue since day one. [Her plan is] a colossal failure.”

Raimondo unveiled on Jan. 28 the revised plan, which would charge trucks $3 per toll, up to a maximum of $20 per day, for driving through the tiny Ocean State on Interstate 95 as well as on I-295, Route 6 and Route 146.

“The truckers have a vested interest in attacking RhodeWorks — of course, they prefer to keep getting a free ride in Rhode Island, while causing most of the vehicle-created damage to our bridges, which are consistently ranked worst in the nation,” Raimondo spokeswoman Marie Aberger told TT.

Aberger noted that trucks pay $182 to traverse the length of the Pennsylvania Turnpike and $114 to cross from New Jersey into New York via the George Washington Bridge.

“The governor . . . has proposed a smart, innovative and fair solution that would have trucks pay user fees,” she said.

Raimondo said the first-in-the-nation truck-only tolls would raise $40 million to $45 million annually to help pay for bridge repairs.

But in a report commissioned by the trucking association last month, consulting firm IHS projected truck tolls would generate only $24 million to $37.5 million.

Maxwell said that Raimondo and the state’s Department of Transportation “blindsided” trucking when it initially released the $1.1 billion, 30-year RhodeWorks plan without prior dialogue last May.

“We’ve had decades of RIDOT malfeasance and mismanagement,” Maxwell said. “That’s why we have neglected bridges in Rhode Island. [They] found a scapegoat in the trucking industry.”

As an alternative, the association proposed an immediate 18-cents-a-gallon increase in the diesel fuel tax as well as a $500 boost in truck registration fees as the key cogs in a five-year, $250 million plan.

Maxwell said that if RhodeWorks is approved, he expects out-of-state truckers to avoid Rhode Island by taking I-395 in western Connecticut to the Massachusetts Turnpike.

“They clearly underestimate the effect of diversion,” he said. “We have grave concerns about their math and about their projections. There’s zero compromise. We’re going to go down fighting.”

That was evident when hundreds of truckers protested at the Statehouse last month.

However, hundreds of construction workers staged a counterprotest there on Feb. 3 in support of RhodeWorks and the jobs they believe would come from its passage.

The trucking associations in nearby states are monitoring the tolling battle in Rhode Island.

“I think there will definitely be a legal challenge if the governor is able to get the plan implemented,” New York Motor Truck Association Executive Director Kendra Hems said. “If it does go through, Rhode Island will lose a lot of truck traffic since it’s easy to go around. You can’t do that in New York.”

Joe Sculley, president of the Motor Transport Association of Connecticut, also lamented Raimondo’s “bad” proposal and noted that the return of tolls is being discussed in his state, which eliminated them in 1989.

“If folks avoid Rhode Island, does that mean they’re going to avoid Connecticut, too, and just drive from New York through Massachusetts to get to Boston?” Sculley wondered. “If not, I don’t know how the area around Norwich would handle a huge influx of traffic. There could probably be backups in both directions.”

Back in Rhode Island, Maxwell had deemed House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello “our last, best hope” after the House blocked RhodeWorks in June after the Senate’s approval. However, Mattiello’s support seems to have shifted. He appeared with Raimondo and Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed at the governor’s Jan. 28 announcement that updated RhodeWorks with the infusion of federal dollars from the new highway law, Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act.

“He doesn’t really understand trucking by indicating that trucks won’t divert around Rhode Island to avoid the tolls,” Maxwell said. “It will ultimately undermine this plan. The speaker thinks he has the votes. We’re going to work the Legislature and slow this thing down again. I think we have some traction in the House.”

Mattiello’s spokesman didn’t respond to a request for comment.

An analysis of RhodeWorks released Feb. 3 by the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council revealed that the governor’s plan would generate $700 million more in revenue than the state needs to complete its transportation projects over the next 16 years while possibly not producing sufficient revenue in the short term. The think tank’s report added that RhodeWorks would cost taxpayers more than $500 million in tolls and interest and payments, compared with less than $300 million if the state simply borrowed the money.