October 5, 2016 4:20 PM, EDT

FHWA Gives Approval to Rhode Island’s Truck-Only Toll Plan

J. Stephen Conn/Flickr
Rhode Island’s truck-only tolling plan can proceed after receiving the go-ahead from the Federal Highway Administration, the state’s Department of Transportation announced Oct. 5.

Under Gov. Gina Raimondo’s RhodeWorks plan, Rhode Island would borrow $300 million against money coming to the state from the FAST Act, refinance previous loans for $120 million more and gain $45 million a year through 14 truck-only tolls to fix the state’s roads and repair the nation’s highest percentage of structurally deficient bridges.

"For too long, our state kicked the can down the road on infrastructure, allowing our roads and bridges to crumble and fall into total disrepair,” Raimondo said after FHWA signed off on her tolling plan. “With the partnership and approval of the federal government, we are going to keep moving forward as quickly as we can to deliver the infrastructure Rhode Islanders deserve."

While FHWA Division Administrator Carlos Machado had told Transport Topics in March that the agency was weighing the legality of RhodeWorks, agency spokeswoman Nancy Singer said Oct. 5 that FHWA approval isn’t required for tolling bridges. Singer added that FHWA suggests states enter into memorandums of understanding “whenever tolling is a consideration — and RIDOT chose to do so.”

All but one of the 14 tolls are covered by the MOUs with the 14th expected to follow once the existing environmental mitigation requirements for the project are satisfied. Trucks will pay $3 at each toll up to a maximum of $20 per day.

“These MOUs make clear that the federal government agrees with Rhode Island's program to implement bridge tolls on large commercial vehicles or ‘tractor-trailers,’ ” RIDOT said in a press release.

The Rhode Island Trucking Association, which organized convoys of honking trucks to circle the state Capitol as legislators voted on RhodeWorks in February, is angry, as is American Trucking Associations.

"We don't know if this program is legal, but it is bad policy and an extortion of our industry,” ATA President Chris Spear said Aug. 24 at a meeting in Rhode Island

“We continue to hold accountable and punish each and every legislator who supported RhodeWorks with the outside chance that a widespread change in leadership could open the door for repeal,” said Chris Maxwell, CEO of RITA.  “Case in point, the powerful majority leader [of the Assembly, John DeSimone] was ousted in the primary. Perhaps that’s a sign of things to come.”

A legal challenge by RITA with ATA’s likely backing also could be coming.

“There are any number of areas ranging from discriminately imposing the burden of infrastructure funding on one class and sector to violating commerce by providing unfair breaks to local carriers,” Maxwell said. “The state is also actively pursuing measures that would impede commerce by directing and incentivizing municipalities to enforce secondary road travel based on the thought that trucks are skirting tolls rather than making deliveries or grabbing a meal or break.”

When RhodeWorks was approved by the General Assembly, ATA’s then-acting General Counsel Rich Pianka termed the plan “unrealistic, unfair and unlawful.”

According to RIDOT, RhodeWorks assesses tolls on tractor-trailers to account for the disproportionately large amount of damage they cause relative to cars and other trucks. A GAO report to Congress indicated that one fully loaded tractor trailer can do the equivalent damage of 9,600 cars.

“The scheme was sold on revenue assumptions that will never materialize,” Pianka said then. “Its burden falls solely on the back of trucking but will ultimately hurt Rhode Island businesses and consumers by making it costlier for trucks to deliver their goods. And the scheme is structured specifically to burden interstate commerce for the benefit of local interests — exactly the kind of discrimination against interstate commerce that the U.S. Constitution forbids states from engaging in.”