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January 29, 2016 3:00 PM, EST

Gov. Raimondo Makes Industry 'A Scapegoat' With Toll Plan, R.I. Trucking Leader Says

The war of words between Rhode Island officials and the state’s trucking association over Gov. Gina Raimondo’s "RhodeWorks" truck-tolling infrastructure plan boiled over Jan. 29.

Rhode Island Trucking Association CEO Chris Maxwell, noting that no state makes only trucks pay tolls, told Transport Topics that Raimondo "hasn’t said an educated word about this issue since day one. [Her plan is] a colossal failure.”

Raimondo's newest proposal, unveiled Jan. 28, wants to charge trucks $3 per toll in Rhode Island up to a maximum of $20 for driving through the tiny Ocean State on Interstate 95. She hopes to raise $40 million to $45 million annually to help pay for bridge repairs in the state.

“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,” said Marie Aberger, Raimondo’s spokeswoman, noting 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.”

But in a report commissioned by the trucking association Jan. 12, consulting firm IHS projected truck tolls in Rhode Island would only generate $24 million to $37.5 million.

Maxwell said that Raimondo and the state’s Department of Transportation “blindsided” trucking when it 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 to the imposition of tolls, the Rhode Island Trucking Association has proposed an immediate 18-cent 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.

“Through trucks have full discretion to go right around Rhode Island because we are not a corridor state,” said Maxwell, who expects out-of-state truckers to avoid Rhode Island by taking I-395 in western Connecticut to the Massachusetts Turnpike. “They’re trying to slam this through because they know their facts don’t stack up. They can dress this pig up as best as they want to. They clearly underestimate the effect of diversion. … We have grave concerns about their math and about their projections. …There’s zero compromise. We’re going to go down fighting.”

Maxwell had deemed Rhode Island House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello “our last, best hope,” but Mattiello's support seems to have shifted after 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 FAST 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 an e-mailed request for comment.

“I am grateful for the partnership of the speaker and Senate president to take action and get this done,” Raimondo told Transport Topics.